Character and the Subjugation of Self

We humans are an interdependent lot–meaning we require cooperation with each other to survive and thrive. But, we are also in competition with one another–seeking to satisfy our own individual yearnings, sometimes at the expense of others.

The ubiquitous challenge of establishing a successful equilibrium between being true to ourselves or sacrificing portions of our individuality in order to be accepted by the group is perhaps the core defining conundrum of our species. How we resolve that puzzle determines our ability to prosper–again, both as individuals and societies. Too much “self” and we get rejected by the group, risking isolation and separation from the protections of the tribe. Too much default to the group for the sake of inclusion, and we risk losing the meaningful life and contribution that may be uniquely ours. We ransom away who we are.

If I can hurt you, I won’t. If I can help you, I will.

The tightrope that allows us to balance successfully between those two dichotomies is the element of trust. Trust is not a primary action in and of itself. It is a byproduct of behaviors that powerfully demonstrate one’s willingness to consciously forego doing things that will result in injury to another. In fact, the highest levels of trust are created when one sacrifices their own time, energy, attention, and interests for the benefit of another.

When we think of those whom we can trust, we are naturally drawn to the characteristics of their personality. We intuitively think, “That person is good–they can be trusted. They are of solid character. They have integrity.

Since we value it in others, it seems natural that we ourselves would be highly motivated to be people of character and integrity. Were it only as easy as making the decision!

A conversation between the two “me’s.”

Within the brain, there are two voices in conversation with each other. (This is certainly an oversimplification, but simplification, in this case, is what gives us the power to control the conversation–which is the daunting challenge we face.)

Located deep within the brain stem, the amygdala is the primitive or “reptilian” part of the brain. Its purpose relates to personal survival and its processes involve the very rapid evaluation of the environment to discern threats and opportunities. It is the animal within us. It thinks, feels, and acts before we can “truly” think. And, it advises us to either fight, freeze, or run away–quickly! It is a reactive engine with a primary focus on self-preservation.

The neocortex is where the “higher” processing of information happens. This is where we do a better evaluation of the situation and make decisions that have a greater potential for helping us succeed, for ourselves and for the community. It thinks in context and considers complexities, goals, and consequences.

Here’s the problem: the amygdala is a fast-draw shooter. It will always win the duel. It processes information much quicker than the neocortex and tries to scare us into a reactive response – sometimes to our detriment, including fractured relationships and exclusion from the group.

Enter the Mediator – Character

By its nature, character forces us to suppress immediate reactions in favor of smarter, more satisfying long-term outcomes–not the least of which is more solid relationships built on firm foundations of trust.

Character is formed over time through the persistent inculcation of core values, usually discerned through the combination of the external teachings and rigorous self-examination. As we experience life along with its trials and tribulations, we reflect on what the best responses are, based not solely on how we might benefit exclusively, but also on what is best for the greater good. From our insights, we build a foundation of core values that make up our character. And, through our personal determinations to act on those values, we build integrity. (Integrity comes from the same root word as “integer” which is a whole number.) When we act with integrity, we are choosing to be “whole” with our espoused values.

The cost to us is the sacrifice of our primitive selves. For many who find satisfaction and even pleasure in fixating on the dark pleasures of emotional outrage, that sacrifice may be too big a price to pay.

For those who prevail, a higher purpose awaits–a life of greater meaning and a legacy of service to others.

Yours in faith, character, and service,


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