Unfavorable situations

Good qualities of character never come easily. Not only do you have to recognize a deficit in your own attitudes in the first place before you can begin correcting it; not only do you have to work for a long time and take a lot of setbacks to effect a lasting change; but even when you are in general capable to do the right thing in all sorts of situation, it takes an effort every single time. When people show, for instance, admirable composure and control under stress, that is not usually so because it's 'just their personality' — it's something they have mastered in a long and rigorous quest, and in addition, it's an act of will to do it freshly on every new occasion. It is an excellence of character that manifests itself in such endurance; an excellence that has been built up successfully and yet requires energy and determination again and again. And some qualities, such as endurance indeed, couldn't even be found in situations other than those which bring stress, confusion, pain and injustice.

By now it can begin to seem that quality of character is inextricably bound to unfavorable circumstances in order to be applied. If it is good to show courage opposite danger, patience when facing tedium, moderation in view of temptations: are then not danger, tedium and temptations good things as well, at least in the sense that they can give occasion for good attitude? And what about bravely enduring pain, say, during medical treatment, or even, more dramatically, under torture? Justice, if you know you have been treated badly? Calm and restraint in the middle of a nervous crowd? If these are admirable qualities, then are not pain and torture, grievance and turmoil also of some good? Should you (a sort of pervert argument might go) even wish for these if you're intent on building a good character?

Not so fast. In every situation there are aspects that we can control, and others which we cannot influence. In general, our attitudes are of the former sort: it's up to you how you behave in any kind of circumstance. (Although we may at times experience ourselves as unable to control our attitude in the heat of the situation, that is a shortcoming that can be addressed in the long run.) We cannot always choose the situations which we'll find ourselves in, but we can choose what attitude to take once we are in them. And if we cannot choose whether we get into a certain situation (say, a medical treatment, as in the example above, with all the pain that may go along with it), then there's no point in wishing or hoping for it to happen (or, in this case, to being prevented from happening). It's just a waste of energy. We can, however, wish to take a decent attitude, and wishing this can eventually motivate us to invest the effort that is necessary to actually do it: to take that decent attitude. (A side remark: there is no point in hoping here, either; you don't hope that you'll behave properly, it's something that you have to do.)

It is consistent with this view to avoid unfavorable situations, if that's in our control (and if we do not compromise ourselves by it: caution is a good quality of character, cowardice is a bad one). That is because situations of this kind are precisely not good, or bad, just in themselves. However, if we do in fact get mixed up in such a situation (or even if we just envisage the possibility), then there is a choice: namely, the choice of which attitude to take; and here we wish for exercising that choice correctly: in favor of a good attitude (in this example that's endurance, not giving in and compromising self-respect and love for others just for being relieved from pain or getting off the hook quickly).

In truth, what's good or bad are only the character qualities themselves, not the situations. The conditions of our surroundings obtain independently of someone displaying good or bad character in them. People may be in painful or stressful situations and fail to endure them, they may act weakly and immorally. Or they may act admirably, refusing to let themselves be driven by stress-induced confusion or the desire to avoid pain, achieving control and even success from within such adverse surroundings. What is good, and thus worthy of wishing for, are not the circumstances, but that we act in them just as we should. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.