Character and Death

In addition to the cheesy Coelho book, I just picked up “Team of Rivals,” an account of the Lincoln administration, who, as the title suggests, was made up of Lincoln’s Republican presidential rival candidates. While I’m not deep into the book, there are a few things that stand out to me.
The first thing is the portrayals of each of these men—Lincoln, William Seward, Salmon Chase, Edward Bates, and Edwin Stanton—were practically obsessed with character development. While most—if not all—of them were religiously inclined, there seemed in each of them a self-conscious striving for personal development. Most of the men had clockwork-like schedules of reading, letter-writing, work, horticulture and the myriad other tasks that occupied the mid-nineteenth century man. But it was the recognition in each of these men that character was an active pursuit rather than an innate quality that most jumped out at me. I’ve been trying to develop my character, abstaining from certain foods and types of women; writing every day; meditating every day; developing systematic ways of giving. A part of me thinks that all of this character choreography is a bit too forced, too self-conscious. Part of me thinks the character development—“character” being defined as “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual”—should be an organic matter. I should want to get better and that’s why I behave better.
But this has not been the case in my life. A little while ago I met this cool chick, I’ll call her Doreen (not sure if I’d date a Doreen, but that’s unimportant). I’d made a vow with myself to neither sleep with Doreen until I’d gotten to know her. And if I’d gotten to know her and didn’t see potential in the relationship, I’d either move on or suggest a purely physical relationship. Lincoln, I am not.
This measly bit of character development—the ability to exert some willpower toward a greater goal of not getting entangled with dramatic females—went a long way. I wanted to sleep with her, but I didn’t. The end result was that I found out a few dates in that Doreen was a nut. She was living with her ex, she took Ritalin, she bit her fingernails, she wasn’t the most honest person, etc. The point is I shaped my character in that moment in a very self-conscious way.
Part of me thinks that we’ve become a society that eschews character development and discipline. We want shit easy and now. But such was not the way back in Lincoln’s day. Back then, the thing that kept you from greatness was your character, and if you didn’t have great character, you could apply great effort to change that.
The next thing was that the characters in the book were surrounded by death. All but Seward’s folks died when each of these men were quite young. In fact, Lincoln who was killed when he was 56 when he died was ancient compared to the ages of many of the fallen family of these men. If you made it out of adolescence, you were in good shape.
I’m here in Florida, which is sort of a storage bin of the old. My 94 year-old grandma is being kept alive by mountains of meds. The children of many of these old folks aren’t that much healthier—many of these portly middle-agers wouldn’t last a week in the hinterlands the men and women in this book endured.
So here you have two scenarios: one in which survival is tenuous at best—where trivial diseases and environmental circumstances could spell your ruin. And the other scenario is a guaranteed lifeline. You can mistreat your body indefinitely. You can live in anywhere in the world. You can get horrendous diseases. And recovery is almost guaranteed before the age of 60.
Of these two scenarios, I would think that the 19th Century one might engender more urgency. Perhaps these men put so much effort into character development because life was so fleeting—if they didn’t get it right and soon, it was unlikely that they’d get around to it later. They’d be dead.
While it’s tough to promote the moral strictures that these men (and surely their womenfolk) imposed upon themselves or certainly a return to 19th Century medicine, I do think there’s a lot that can be learned from them. The fact is, even if we live 74 or 77 or even, God forbid, 94 years, life won’t last indefinitely. Just because many of our adult population seem immune to tuberculosis (unlike their 19th Century counterparts), it doesn’t mean that one of us is immune from death. We’re all going to die—it just happens a lot slower nowadays. And given that we are going to die, we might as well do something with this life. Many of us, my self resoundingly included, have shit we need to deal with: we are moody, antisocial, stingy, spendthrifts, sex-addicts, gamblers, addicts, close-minded, poor health, etc.—whatever it is that keeps us being the best person we can be—we might do well to deal with those things like they did when death could be around any corner; handling our defects assiduously, sometimes forcefully and immediately.

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