Two Lists

by Tom Swift

“Character is destiny.” I had heard those words before. Last night I read that they were attributed to Heraclitus, a Presocratic philosopher who was said to practice social distancing several thousand years before it was cool. He was a hermit.

There is a lot of wisdom in that view.

Character is not a word you hear much about theses days. Used to be one of the two major political parties made it part of its platform. You heard it about it — a lot — every four years. That sort of went away when that party’s de facto head turned out to be someone with little to no moral standing on most matters of import.

I think character is important. I think it should be valued more.

I don’t necessarily wish for people or groups to decide for the rest of us what public character is. This can be in the eye of the beholder — somewhat. I do wish that the common values — honesty, integrity, virtue, the willingness to admit mistakes, decency, kindness — were prized more than they seem at present to be.

Personally, this statement — getting back to Heraclitus — speaks to me. I like that it empowers me to think of my own actions.

Our own actions are under our control.

My own actions are under my control.

Certainly, we act often without first consciously thinking through our words or behaviors. This is human nature and it is necessary. You could not get through the day if you weighed and considered every moment before acting on that moment.

Yet we also have the ability to reflect on what we do and that process of reflection can lead to different words and behaviors in future moments.

I do not always take the time but at the end of the day I think it’s useful to open my notebook and make two short lists.

The first: What I did well.

The second: What I did not do well.

I then resist the temptation to scold myself for the items that appear on the second list. They are done; there is nothing I can do to change the past 24 hours.

Yet I think there is great power in seeing. That is often more than enough. The unconscious takes it from there.

The pitfall for me is that as soon as I think of that word, character, in moments of stress or moral ambiguity in the course of a day I immediately strive for perfection and, tend to initiate self-inflected mental punches for falling short of perfection.

Which, of course, does not exist and is not possible.

Yet by not taking a look at my failings, I am more likely to repeat them.

And, thus, they are, as Heraclitus might say, more likely to steer my ship.

That is the crux of character for me. It’s about wanting to do well — yes — but mostly it’s about wanting to do better.