Creating (a) Character

I remember the hay harvest.

As the summer waned each year, the pastureland on my grandpa’s farm grew swollen with alfalfa and bluegrass. Wide open acres of waving horse fodder stood ready to be taken down, brought in, and put up. I loved this time of year, because it meant that my grandma would be preparing one of the grandest culinary manifestations that my young eyes had ever seen- the farm hand’s breakfast. Young men from storied Symsonia lineage would descend onto the land- Davis and Wainwrights and Iveys and Polivicks and Peckinpaws- all for a chance to work a day’s wage or earn a cut of the crop. They appeared as the dew, early and out of nowhere. Too-soon men with forearms like pistons, they came draped in well-worn flannel and donned Skoal caps to hide their faces from the malignant sun. And they had to be fed. The table on those mornings was a sight you might find at the top of a magic beanstalk or in the court of Ghengis Khan. Bread and meat and fruit and drink of all manner was presented to them and they consumed it heartily. Within minutes the feast was decimated, as a plague of locusts lays a plot to waste; as they too, like a swarm, would work to clear the fields. I can remember sneaking into the kitchen after their exodus and grabbing a leftover biscuit. It was, to me, holy bread. As if I was an acolyte in this sacred ceremony and yet had been permitted to eat from the altar. I tell you, I longed for the day when I could join in that meal.

Those good ‘ol boys at the breakfast table were communicating something to me about manhood, the nobility of work, the sanctity of suffering, the rhythms of the seasons- all without articulating a single notion AND without my possessing the mental machinery to understand it, even if they had. I want you to think about how mystical that is: absent words to an absent mind, yielding revelation. Furthermore, I had no interest in the “principles” that were made allegory in their sweat. I only yearned to sweat as they did. For me then and for me now: there was no hope that learning their lessons would make me as they were, only the hope that becoming as they were would teach me their lessons.

In our contemporary milieu, we have forgotten about this human translation of meaning. Our homes, our churches, the corporate world, our schools- we have littered them all with pulp and platitudes bent on instilling character.

“Be nice.”
“Patience is a virtue.”
“Team work makes the dream work.”
“Do unto others…”

Self-improvement slogans emblazoned on schmaltzy motivational posters beckon us all to fall in rank with the great white middle. We have character-building exercises, citations that impugn our character, and strategies for modeling character to our children. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting all of these things are bad. But, the net effect of this preoccupation with pre-fabbed “morality” has led to (at least) three distinct problematic standpoints that plague modern parenting:

The Loss of Self: We have made moral character more important than “narrative” character and prioritized them into categories of essential and non-essential. In so doing we have unwittingly maligned the bulk of our undertakings, the most of who we are and what we spend our time doing. “Necessary evils”, we call them. Does your Bikram yoga class do anything to promote Sally’s sense of personal responsibility? Does my “Guys Night Out” encourage Buddy’s self-control? Instead of vigorously engaging our interests and ends with verve, allowing them to further influence our stories, we end up being apologetic and half-hearted about the fact that we need them at all.

The Specter of Selfishness: A natural consequence of the attitude described above, any action undertaken that is not directly linked to some benefit for the children is deemed “selfish”. We bat at our uneasiness with this designation by using names like, “Me-time” or “Taking a break”. Let me tell you something: Being an effective parent does not mean sacrificing your Self for the good of your brood. Too much of what we hear is blather about selfishness.

You’re selfish if you want to…

Go back to school
Keep your favorite hobby
Climb the ladder a little
Spend time with your friends
Hell, you’re selfish if you want to spend time alone with your spouse!

All of these sentiments are couched in the idea that YOUR people, projects, and passions- the very things that invigorate your best characteristics and cause you to flourish- are somehow peripheral to your life as a parent. How does that make any sense?

I call bullshit.

“I must decrease so that you may increase”…

… is a statement to be made about Jesus, not about Junior.

YOU matter.

The Flanderism of Character: Named for the Simpsons archetypal do-gooder, Ned Flanders, a sort of moral infertility that is pandemic in our parentage, both literally and spiritually. Time and again, we robotically restate the list of propositions to our children, hoping that the “correct” information will nestle into their conscience. All the while, we have become characters so flat that even if we had attained the stigmata, we are painfully stale to those hearts who need us the most. This is an astounding reality. Even if you somehow magically knew exactly what to say in every instance, could produce the perfect, virtuous axiom for every moral riddle… if you aren’t intriguing and dynamic to your children, at some point they will stop listening. I’m not saying to be like Fonzy so you can teach your tween the Beatitudes.

I’m saying that your character- the one you play in their story- is a complex one that cannot simply be reduced to “the lessons” it conveys.

A close friend of mine tells a story from his youth about his father’s adult-league baseball team. Every New Jersey summer Sunday, he and his whole family would be bleacher creatures for dad, rooting him on and watching the last vespers of his youth be rung out on the diamond. Something crucial was passed on to him during those days, even if he couldn’t give it utterance. He says it was like watching a superhero, and from the way his eyes fade away while he reminisces, I don’t doubt it.

Have a story like my friend’s? We’d love to hear it in the comments section.

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'Creating (a) Character' have 6 comments

  1. September 18, 2014 @ 1:51 PM Bob

    I love this line: “I want you to think about how mystical that is: absent words to an absent mind, yielding revelation.” That is a deep thought – I am intrigued by the ways we communicate “beyond” language.


    • September 19, 2014 @ 2:48 PM Dan

      Great post- I especially like the ending. It can be chilling to think of how we shape others in those moments of routine when teaching isn’t part of our agenda.


      • September 21, 2014 @ 12:16 PM Bret Spears

        “Chilling” is an apt description for it. WHO we are translates- it is sobering. It means a lot to me that you liked the article.


    • September 21, 2014 @ 12:14 PM Bret Spears

      It really is a sublime thing. I have no idea how it works.


  2. October 6, 2014 @ 11:09 PM Blake

    This is my favorite post so far. I wonder if this mystical form of communication is not meant to be primary. Even very elaborate, articulate vocabulary is unable to capture the magnificence of the human soul. This always comes up when you are trying to comfort someone in great distress or sorrow. Words then seem almost like an insult, though your heart may be reaching out.


    • October 10, 2014 @ 4:45 PM Bret Spears

      “I wonder if this form of communication isn’t meant to be primary”

      That is a significant thought. I don’t know if it can ever be primary per se, but I’m completely convinced that the “unspoken” is far too diminished in our time. “Actions speak louder than words” is about the best we’ve got and I honestly think it’s just a bastardization of the real deal. Thanks for writing, brother.


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