Meditations for Layfolks - Character

Many people seem to worry themselves a great deal more over the things that they cannot help than over the things that they can. They are greatly agitated over the colour of their hair (for which they are not responsible), and but little over their tempers (for which they are). This want of proportion is doubtless observable in myself. Do I think more of the accidents of birth, fortune, personal appearance, than of the self that I have created? For I myself am responsible for myself. "To be bom a gentleman is an accident, to die one is an achievement." Other things, then, I may not be able to help, but myself I can. As I am at this very moment, as my character is truthful or untruthful, pure or impure, patient or impatient, slow to wrath or quick-tempered, eager, enthusiastic, energetic, or lazy and dull and wasteful of time I have no one to thank but my own self. Of course, I may blame my temperament and say I was born so; I may accuse the hereditary tendencies of my family, or excuse myself because I have been spoilt or cowed or left to my own devices, or have been deluged with too much religion or starved with too little. But despite all this, the fact remains that I myself alone am responsible for my own character; for character is an artificial thing that is not born, but made: it is the result of human effort and human guidance, of human wisdom and human folly. I am as I am now to the eye of God because I have so made or marred myself, either deliberately and of set purpose, or else by allowing myself to drift along, and never moving hand or foot to save myself from peril.

But surely there is such a thing as temperament? Surely people really are different from birth? Surely even the physical formation of the body, physical health or the want of it, the health and desires and moods of our parents at the moment of conception, the whole stream of tendencies inherited or instilled in early childhood, the evils produced by a neglected education or an up bringing that is not Catholic, do most certainly affect my nature and make some difference to me? Have I not, on their account, some justification in excusing myself from being wholly responsible for the evils in my character? Here I must begin by realizing that I must make a very real distinction between temperament and character. Temperament is natural, I am born with it; character is artificial, the result of my way of life. I am born with a certain definite temperament, and for this I am not responsible; and on this account, too, I may well suppose that God will make allowances for me. At any rate this temperament gives me a set off, a push, in one definite direction: for some are by nature gentle, generous, and obliging, while others as naturally are cross-tempered and easily ruffled. But this need not settle my character. Of course, if I make no effort to tame any evil tendencies of my nature, then temperament and character will coincide and my actual life will only mark more deeply and emphasize more pronouncedly the original defect with which I started. But that is my own affair, for it is possible for me to act in opposition to my temperament and to produce a character that is the reverse of my nature.

Saint Thomas, indeed, in a very brief passage, seems to suggest that the worse our natural temperament is, the better for us; nor is it at all difficult to understand his argument. If I have a bad temper by nature, let me first of all go down on my knees and thank God for it; for it is surely highly probable that if I had a good temper I should be obliging and kind, not from any supernatural motive but from sheer nature. Supposing I was of that comfortable disposition which says "Yes" just because it finds it impossible to say "No," surely my acts would hardly ever be supernaturalized. But, on the other hand, supposing I am so cantankerous that I can be generous and helpful only at the cost of a mighty effort, then I can be certain that every obliging thing I do is done only from a high motive: it is the very contrary force which stiffens me into goodness. Just as an enemy is the necessary material out of which to fashion victory, so is an evil temperament the foundation on which a strong character is to be built up. This character is, of course, nothing else than the group of habits formed round the axis of the will; and these are achieved only by repeated acts, so that it is by deliberate and energetic actions alone that I can react against my own temperament. But, above all, I must beware of allowing myself to be careless in life, without ambition or ideal or plan; for to drift through existence is at least as dangerous as deliberate evil consciously performed: I am quick, then, by nature, or mean or thronged with impure imaginings. It does not much matter what my own trouble may be, but, instead of bemoaning it, I should set to work by deliberate and conscious reason to reform myself under the grace of God, not follow the blind impulses of nature.

- text taken from Meditations for Layfolk by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.