Nature took a huge risk in giving our species self-control and free will. Of course, I need to qualify these terms right away, as our self-control and free will are really quite limited. But the degree in which we have these is behind most of what today we celebrate (and sometimes regret) as our distinctly human contribution to life on this planet.
When in our prehistory this endowment occurred is impossible to say, but if our individual development through the lifespan recapitulates the timing and sequence of our evolution as a species, then we can confidently say that it began early. In all honesty we have to admit that it’s probably still in process, seeing as how so much of our tribulation along with the collateral damage we are causing is a consequence of our immaturity and neurotic hangups around self-control and free will. Self-control achieves a liberation of creative energy from the compulsive drives and reflexes of instinct, while free will invites the question of how this creative energy will be otherwise invested.
The beneficiary (and executor-in-training) of this endowment is that peculiar little miracle called the ego. For thousands and perhaps millions of years, the human body and soul have changed very little. The outward orientation of consciousness to its surroundings and the inward orientation to its own grounding mystery are essentially the same today as they were at the dawn of our history. The difference – and the difference-maker – across that great span of time has been this center of self-conscious identity: the “I” (ego).
As I said, although it may have begun to appear many millenniums ago – in the “childhood” of our species – we are at present certainly farther along but (just as certainly) significantly short of where we need to be. Nature’s gamble is still in play. It’s reasonable to assume that our evolutionary progress as a species advances according to how far we are individually able to develop and use our creative energy for the greater good. Our individual hangups may hinder human progress more than we realize or want to admit.My diagram above illustrates the timing and sequence of human development as it tracks with the formation of ego consciousness. The arcing magenta-colored arrow represents the lifespan, which I’ve divided into four periods – the early life of a Child, followed by the age of Youth, maturing into a longer period of an Adult, and culminating in the late life of an Elder. Before I dig deeper into each of these four periods, let’s stay at this level of resolution and think about the major ideas carried in my diagram: Ground, Character, and Destiny.
Character is first of all a literary term referring to personalities (human or otherwise) that are introduced and developed in stories. At first introduction a literary figure is a cosmetic placeholder, just a name filled in with the bare details we need to know as an audience. As the story progresses we are given more information and observe this personality in various situations of challenge, agency, and reaction. Over time (which means farther along the narrative) the figure takes on weight and consistency, to the extent that we can reasonably predict how he or she will behave next.
That’s what I mean by character: the habit of identity that accumulates around individuals as they follow their inclinations (or restrain them), respond to their circumstances (or hide from them), and choose their path through life (or look for excuses). The one doing all of this is ego, which makes character the “weight and consistency” that determines identity as time goes on. I’ve tried to illustrate this increasing influence of character on identity by the color gradient of the word (getting darker and heavier from left to right).
Destiny refers to the culmination of development, to what I have elsewhere called the “apotheosis” of the individual and evolutionary fulfillment of our species. Its most important meaning is subjective – that is to say, the clarity of vision that individuals, communities, or even entire generations have concerning the longer purpose of their existence. The color gradient of this word is also intended to suggest that this future vision becomes more vivid and attractive with the formation of character.
The third big idea represented in my diagram is Ground, which should be familiar to my readers. Ground is not some thing, but the generative source and support of all things; it is being-itself. Also called the grounding mystery, it’s the internal wellspring of existence accessible only by the descending path of introspective meditation. Even though it’s the best and most widely used metaphor for this mystery, “ground” is still only a conceptual qualification for what cannot be named or known. This ineffable nature of the grounding mystery makes it a limitless source of inspiration, which helps to explain the lush variety of mythopoetic depictions of God across the world religions.
But let’s come back to character, as it’s really the central idea of my diagram. Our evolutionary endowment of self-control and free will tracks with the gradual ascent of ego consciousness, as the individual increasingly becomes a “separate” center of identity. I put that word in quotes to remind us that separateness, along with the associated delusion of independence, is really only an apparent separateness (and independence) and is itself dependent on a crisscrossing system of suspension wires called agreements or beliefs.
In other words, who (we think) we are is nothing more than a function of what we attach ourselves to or push away from, constituting an “identity contract” that characterizes us (literally) as “for” this or “against” that. The identity contract itself will record various subsets of attitudes, behaviors, expectations, and responsibilities that fill out what a given role entails.
As we advance along the arc of our lifespan we are taking on additional identity contracts, even as we step out of others and leave them behind. The more defined our identity is, the stronger our character is, since character is nothing but the “weight and consistency” that identity accumulates in the process of becoming somebody (ego). On balance, the older we are the more identity contracts we are likely to hold. A newborn baby has no ego as yet, but soon enough she will begin taking on agreements and entering identity contracts with the powers that be.
The formation of character is thus a life-long project. But this project doesn’t proceed in a haphazard manner; we don’t simply take on identity contracts at random. Instead I will suggest that the arc of ego development moves through distinct evolutionary fields that coincide roughly with chronological periods of time – the four ages of the Child, the Youth, the Adult, and the Elder. The age thresholds indicated in the diagram (10, 25, 60) shouldn’t be taken as hard predictors, but rather as average ages at which an individual is likely to cross over from one major period (or evolutionary field) to the next.
Each age is oriented on an existential concern, which in a previous post (“Myth and the Matrix of Meaning”: http://wp.me/p2tkek-j2) I named a primary concern that acts as a magnetic attractor of values and interests. Now I can place these primary or existential concerns in the developmental context of an individual lifespan, specifically in this chronological order: security (Child), freedom (Youth), suffering (Adult), and fate (Elder). I’m not suggesting that this is the only thing an individual thinks about or dwells on in a given period. Obviously there is much else going on. The point, however, is that each existential concern – even if not explicitly registered in consciousness – pulls all other values into its gravity.
The remaining components of my diagram are “mood” (at the deep center) and four literary modes, or types of story (along the periphery of the arc). I am borrowing these modes from the work of Northrup Frye, a giant in twentieth-century literary criticism.
Mood is a kind of mode in its own right, referring to the physical-emotional state of the nervous system persisting over time. Our experience of life is profoundly conditioned (filtered, shaped, limited, and oriented) by our prevailing mood, which is how provident we feel reality is as it concerns our security, freedom, suffering, and fate. The ideal physical-emotional state is what we might name confidence (or faith), an inner assurance that the present mystery of reality supports us in our need.
During each of the four ages of life (Child, Youth, Adult, Elder) the individual is composing a life narrative (or if you will, a personal myth) that organizes his or her experience around the stage-relevant existential concern. One mode of story is the comedy, which constructs a narrative about security (home, supervision, protection, resources), the invasion of security threats, and the successful defense of home base. A comedy in this sense is not necessarily a “funny” story, but rather carries an optimistic confidence that everything is going to be all right or “happily ever after.”
Just as a comedy isn’t necessarily “comical,” a romance isn’t always “romantic” in the sappy sense. As a literary mode, romance is a story about freedom (adventure, risk, discovery, inspiration), the trials that wait beyond the horizon, and the validation of desire for a worthy ideal. Romance has an obvious correlation to the age of Youth, when an individual typically grows bored with the current world-order and pushes the boundaries of fashion, propriety, safety, and moral permission.
To associate adulthood with suffering and tragedy should elicit protest – but maybe not from adults themselves. The plot-curve of tragedy trends in a definite downward direction, engaging along the way in experiences of suffering (pain, obligation, sacrifice, loss), typically without an upward reversal of fortune to make it all better. The Buddha’s dictum that “life is suffering” rings true for many adults who have to learn the art of living with pain, of reconciling their youthful dreams to actual achievement, and carrying on after the loss of friends, employment, or aging parents.
As an individual progresses into the age of an Elder, the boundaries of what is possible begin to collapse more closely to the limits of reality. Since one’s character is largely the product of all that’s happened, of all the choices made, of the way things just happened to shake out, is it a fallacy to believe that all of it is as it had to be? What good is wishing it had been otherwise? In the greater scheme of things there may be limits and necessities that ultimately call the shots – what the ancients called fate. The literary mode of irony provides a double vision on the narrative, where the self-control and free will of its characters are contained and determined by the story itself. Just as in real life, the last period on the final sentence brings everything to an end.
Now, while that seems like a needlessly pessimistic note to end on, let’s remember that wisdom – the esteemed virtue of later life – is an understanding of how to live in harmony with the greater rhythms, higher wholeness, present mystery, and terminal conditions of our life in time. Before we shuttle our elders off to nursing homes, we might honor their lives and really listen to their stories.