“A man’s character is his fate.” Heraclitus (540 BC – 480 BC), On the Universe
“If the final purpose of aging is character, then character finishes life, polishes it into a more lasting image.” James Hillman
If I have felt compelled towards living life closer to the margins, seeking out what is obscure, liminal, or for understanding more deeply the nature of life, I might trace these loose threads back to childhood and the memory of my dear Great, Great Aunt Bunny. The family myth taking root early in my life often compared my oddness to hers. Maybe another child would not have taken the myth to heart and some may say a child should be left without a myth or vision handed down by an ancestor, but I remain grateful.
Although long since passed on, her presence fosters in me a love of life’s oddness. Through the legacy of family stories that tell of her adventurous nature, and a sustained presence through reading her letters, postcards and books, I find solace and appreciation for the courage and daring this passionate woman had. She lived a non-ordinary life, and if in some ways her image remains idealized, it has also been a healing fiction.
Aunt Bunny’s distinguishable traits are what James Hillman calls character. Her styling, from the occasional wearing of men’s clothes, living with a female companion, to her exotic collections, stands out with bold acuity in my memories. When I felt misunderstood and misfitted, it was this ancestral connection to Bunny’s oddity that kept me going, encouraging in me a lifelong curiosity to my troubled, youthful attraction to oddness.
So, what is character? How do we account for that which gives us our unique character?
James Hillman, in his book titled, The Force of Character and the Lasting Life, suggests that character is a shaping form that is part of our being, not just the psyche but the whole of who we are. Of the word character he says:
“The very word derives from kharassein, Greek for “engrave,”“sketch,” or “inscribe”; kharakter, which is both one who makes sharp incisive marks and the marks made, such as letters in a writing system.”
Hillman refers back to a time when character was understood less as desirable traits and more as the force that forms, shapes and marks us throughout life, which become more striking as we age, evidenced in the lines of our face and in our personality. As we age we are actualising a unique image we’re born with, marked as much by the cosmology of the world at the time of our birth, as it is by inherited traits and afflictions of family and culture.
We can understand then how it is that astrologers envision the influence of the cosmos upon us. Our birth itself is an event compelled by all the prior events of the cosmos. Each birth an expression of the circumstances of both family and tribe and the far-reaching motion of the planets and stars. Modern science, psychology and theology narrows the understanding of birth influence to that of genetics, childhood or original sin, but those explanations can’t account for the full range of the person and our unique drive and expression.
Character is qualitative and keeps us a little off, never quite normal, or just a type or statistic. Just as the earth wobbles, imperfectly round, eccentrically circling the sun in a not quite 360 degree revolution, the force of character compels each of us, as perfectly imperfect.
Character’s inescapable force guarantees no particular moral outcome and is both a blessing and a curse. Hillman stresses the importance of seeing aesthetics before morality, not because morality does not matter, but because it’s not enough. To look only at morality catches us in a duality assigning values of right and wrong, tempting us to summarily dismiss what might more accurately be called ungraspable or misunderstood. An ethical evaluation of character leaves out the important truth that all of us have faulty, frail, vulnerable, flawed, shadowy aspects to our character. The compassion that leads to love comes to us primarily through our own inescapable vulnerabilities.
“Character forces me to encounter each event in my peculiar style. It forces me to differ. I walk through life oddly. No one else walks as I do, and this is my courage, my dignity, my integrity, my morality, and my ruin.”
Failings, sufferings, afflictions can then be seen as breakdowns that lead to loosening the armour of idealism and perfectionist tendencies we accumulate in youth. It is through aging that character begins to gather in us a lasting expression of our place and time. What lasts and finally moves us into the realm of ancestors is an accumulative complex image, layered with a lifetime of becoming that places us too in the realm of myth for all who would know us and for those who come after.
“The plots that entangle our souls and draw forth our characters are the great myths. That is why we need a sense of myth and knowledge of different myths to gain insight into our epic struggles , our misalliances, and our tragedies. Myths show the imaginative structures inside our messes, and our human characters can locate themselves against the background of the characters of myth.”
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” Helen Keller
All quotes except where noted, Hillman, James (2012-11-07). The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.