We humans are not merely products of our constitution or our environment. Yes, we have innate predispositions. And yes, things that happen to us influence us. But we’re unique among all creatures in our capacity for choice. And a variety of powerful experiences has taught me that a person’s will is capable of being nurtured, strengthened, and correctly directed.
Not all undisciplined behavior represents a genuine addiction. And while there are some rare exceptions, most true addictions don’t just develop overnight. There’s a typical pathway to getting “hooked.” And that pathway is littered with many clear warning signs. Healthy characters respect and heed those signs. But underdeveloped characters tend to ignore or disregard them. That’s why character, and mastering character’s “sixth command,” is so important.
It’s not enough to simply think before acting. What you think and how you’re thinking matters, too. You have to think with social awareness. And your thinking has to be guided by sound principles. Disturbed characters operate on the pleasure principle and the self-serving principle. But healthy characters operate on the principle of the greater good.
Mindfulness as a character quality is more than a particular practice like meditation. It’s a state of being and a way of living. Being mindful is about keeping ourselves maximally aware of both our inner world and the outer world, as well as the impact of our choices on those worlds. To be of sound character, one has to be mindful.
People of mature character are mindful of both their decisions and their actions. They temper their urges with reason and foresight. They neither rush into action nor into judgment. Healthy characters think not only about what they’re about to do but also about the likely consequences of their choices.
We become the master of our appetites and aversions when we face and pass crucial tests of character. And the most crucial tests come with temptation, adversity, and power. These tests come early on and often throughout life. We build strength of character by facing and passing life’s little tests in our early years. This prepares us to face the bigger tests later on.
There are several qualities a person must acquire to forge a strong, healthy character. Patience, endurance, and perseverance are among them. But before anyone can acquire these virtues, he or she must first cultivate both the ability and the will to bear discomfort.
The “fifth commandment” of sound character is about mastering our appetites and aversions. But we can’t possibly become the master of our appetites unless we first learn to delay gratification. And we can’t be masters of our aversions unless we’ve cultivated the will to bear discomfort.
Our gluttony isn’t just about food. From sex to money, we want more of just about everything. And nothing really satisfies. Moreover, anything we can get too easily and do too often can become an “addiction.”
To be of good character, we must become master of our appetites and aversions, our likes and dislikes. We must become master of instead of slave to what has been commonly called the “pleasure principle.”