A calling in life: We can each shape our own character

Lappawinsoe, a chief of the Delaware people, was painted in 1735 by Gustavus Hesselius. Boys in the tribe went through a destiny-discerning ritual to become men.

Ever since Donald Trump got seriously involved in electoral politics, the issue of a person’s character rocketed to center stage, not just the probity of Mr. Trump — twice impeached and indicted now in four jurisdictions for felony crimes — but the character of every politician running for office; indeed, the issue has filtered down to the average person walking down Main Street in Anytown, USA.

And, while this average person walking down Main Street USA might refuse to challenge his ideological counterpart sur la rue about the probity of his character directly, we Americans run around these days judging each other on the Moral Character Inventory Scale (MCIS) as if partaking in a national rite.

Character is one of those words embedded in the personal thesaurus of each one of us but, when someone asks us to say what character is, we stammer like a child. A wonderful essay could be written about the mental gymnastics a person goes through when asked: “Are you a person of character?” Are you a moral person?

Years ago, when I first encountered Norman Brown’s classic “Love’s Body,” I was taken with his statement that “character is not innate,” that it must be developed. 

Such a view runs counter to the belief that character is fixed at birth, that we are born with an already-made moral structure so that, when we get caught doing something wrong, we can say, “I was born that way. I couldn’t help myself.”

That’s what Geraldine — the boisterous alter-ego of the old-time comedian Flip Wilson, used to say when confronted with bad behavior, “The Devil made me do it.”

Brown says, “A man’s character is his demon, his tutelar spirit” referring to the Greek daimon, a person’s inner spirit — what the Romans called genius, “a protecting spirit, analogous to the guardian angels invoked by the Church of Rome … The Greeks called them δαίμονες (daimones).” [Smith, “Dictionary,” 1880.]

In November 2006, I delivered a paper at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in Los Angeles called, “To Have A Calling in Life: A Human Antidote to Growing Up Absurd And, For Those Involved in the Criminology-Related Disciplines, A Sure Measure of Delinquency Prevention.”  

In that smörgåsbord of ideas I called attention to Socrates’ use of daimon in Plato’s “Apology,” which he called a “divinatory voice,” a voice that comes from so deep within that we think it’s divine.

Socrates said that voice “opposed me even in very small things if I was about to do something I should not rightly do.” For him, the daimon was a kind of superego informing him when he was being treasonous to himself and others. It is this protective voice that people of faith call their guardian angel and that Brown calls a tutelar spirit.

The image most Americans have of such a spirit is Clarence Odbody in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when an angel comes to earth and opposes George Bailey for doing something he should not rightly do.

Xenophon — a student and friend of Socrates — in his “Apologia” and “Memorabilia” expanded on what his teacher said, describing the daimon as inspirational direction, that is, as having a future-oriented visionary dimension. The philosopher Proclus Lycaeus went further by calling the daimon a transformative force, a sort of psycho-genetic energy system from which moral character is born.

Brown says this force is found “in a dream,” that the dream is the mother of our destiny, thus character and destiny are linked in a dream. Freud would call destiny one’s “ego-ideal,” the true self we are meant to be. 

Our aboriginal ancestors in the United States were very much in touch with this process. Indeed, they incorporated a destiny-producing dream sequence in a rite of passage which every young man had to endure to enter adulthood; a young man was forced to look his destiny straight in the eyes.   

In his ethnographic writings, John Heckewelder — a Moravian missionary who lived among the Delaware Indians for more than a decade beginning in 1771 — describes the destiny-discerning process the young male Indian had to go through in his “History, Manners, And Customs Of The Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania And The Neighbouring States.” 

He says, “When a boy is to be thus initiated, he is put under an alternate course of physic and fasting, either taking no food whatever, or swallowing the most powerful and nauseous medicines, and occasionally he is made to drink decoctions of an intoxicating nature, until his mind becomes sufficiently bewildered, so that he sees or fancies that he sees visions, and has extraordinary dreams, for which, of course, he has been prepared beforehand.” 

During the dream ceremony, the young man fancies “himself flying through the air, walking under ground, stepping from one ridge or hill to the other across the valley beneath, fighting and conquering giants and monsters, and defeating whole hosts by his single arm.”

He even connects “with the Mannitto [Manitou] or with spirits, who inform [the young man] of what he was before he was born and what he will be after his death. His fate in this life is laid entirely open before him, the spirit tells him what is to be his future employment, whether he will be a valiant warrior, a mighty hunter, a doctor, a conjurer, or a prophet. There are even those who learn or pretend to learn in this way the time and manner of their death.”

It’s what I described in my criminology paper as having a calling in life.

And during the dream encounter, the initiate is given a name “analogous to the visions that he has seen, and to the destiny that is supposed to be prepared for him. The boy, imagining all that happened to him while under perturbation, to have been real, sets out in the world with lofty notions of himself, and animated with courage for the most desperate undertakings.”

To confirm what he saw, Heckewelder spoke to “several of their old men who had been highly distinguished for their valour, and asked them whether they ascribed their achievements to natural or supernatural causes, and they uniformly answered, that as they knew beforehand what they could do, they did it of course.”

When the elders were asked how they knew what they were capable of, “they never failed to refer to the dreams and visions which they had while under perturbation.”  

Christian Miller — a professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University, a man much in tune with every facet of character development — said in a talk at Notre Dame University not long ago that, even when a person accepts that character can change, he must remember that “it can change in multiple directions so …  just because it changes … doesn’t mean it necessarily will go in the good direction. We can also go in a vicious direction instead.”

Thus, each of us, he says, must be “intentional in thinking about how we can shape our characters … in a more positive direction.” 

His short video on character development is worth the attention of all: bit.ly/3sAEGYM.

In the meantime, I am willing to wage everything I hold dear that no native American in the history of our country ever emerged from his dream ceremony and described his destiny as, “I will be your retribution.”