Shame and Guilt: Necessities for Character; Catalysts for Change

“Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.” -Ludwig Wittgenstein

I watched a movie the other night which profoundly impacted me; it was a film starring Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito, titled The Big Kahuna. The movie centered on existential discussions about meaning, work, self-centeredness, and most importantly to me, character. Bob, a young marketing representative asks Phil if he believes that Bob has character. Phil initially avoids the question, but returns to it at the end of the film, when Bob tells him of his religiously motivated dialogue with ‘The Big Kahuna’ (a big shot CEO whom they wanted to persuade to buy their company’s industrial lubricant products), citing it as an indicator of his selflessness, thus his character. Phil’s reaction highlights the film’s purpose: to shed light on our perpetual unwillingness to truthfully examine ourselves, choosing instead to maintain lofty self-images.

Bob tells Phil that he didn’t want to make it appear as though he were selling something, so he opted instead to focus on the gospel, which to him, seemed more selfless. Phil responded by saying, “The question is, do you have any character at all? And if you want my honest opinion, Bob, you do not. For the simple reason that you don’t regret anything yet.” Bob’s defensively retorted, “Are you saying I won’t have any character unless I do something I regret?” And then came the film’s pivotal moment; Phil answered, “No, Bob. I’m saying you’ve already done plenty of things to regret; you just don’t know what they are. It’s when you discover them, when you see the folly in something you’ve done and you wish you had to do over, but you know you can’t because it’s too late. So you pick that thing up and you carry it with you, to remind you that life goes on: the world will spin without you; you really don’t matter in the end. Then, will you attain character. Because honesty will reach out from inside and tattoo itself all across your face.”

In past blog posts, I’ve focused on character as resilience, our ability to bounce back from heartbreak and overcome adversity, but this film has, in a significant way, helped me redefine the concept, incorporating the quality of regret. Carl Jung once noted that “Man will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing his own soul.” As significant, he’ll, also, go to great lengths to rationalize, and explain away, his bad behavior. Those who carry regret have the bravery to accept themselves, to fully perceive the inner essences of their characters, without succumbing to the ubiquitous desire to increase their self-conceptions; those individuals are truly the courageous ones.

As human beings, self-esteem is incredibly important to us, underlying our moods, our beliefs, and our behaviors; so, it makes sense for us to attempt to sustain it through any means. However, this maintenance becomes detrimental when one begins to deny their flawed behavior. For those individuals, relationships take a back seat to self-esteem, and rather than feeling good about working on increasing their pro-social behaviors, they’re devastated by criticism, perceiving each bit of it as defining their core selves; this feature is more prevalent than not.

And, as studies continue to highlight, our perception of our authentic selves is skewed by our propensity toward self-deception: our intense desires for lasting images of personal perfection. For Ludwig Wittgenstein (one of the most revered philosophers in history), character, authenticity, was the most significant facet of philosophy; in his conception of its purpose, Wittgenstein asserted that philosophy was, in essence, a working on oneself. And he used the act of confession as a means of self-improvement. In the tradition of Leo Tolstoy and St. Augustine, the notable Christian ascetics, Ludwig conceived of confession not only as a way to punish himself, but also to gain insight into the consequences of his actions. He conflated confession with intra-personal awareness, noting that dishonesty toward others was also dishonesty toward oneself. Although his life was full of unrelenting self-torment stemming from a perpetual quest for self-perfection, it exemplified the true meaning of authenticity, which is the courage to acknowledge one’s flaws and to experience the acute guilt which accompanies them.

Character is founded on honesty, humility, agreeableness, helpfulness, assertiveness, courage, resilience, and regret. Character is perpetually the goal and seldom a destination. To have character, one has to be able to look deep within one’s soul and acknowledge profound regret: regret for the intentional sorrow one’s caused others, regret for the unintended anguish arising from thoughtless deeds, and regret for pushing others away when they so desperately needed help. Regret is often torturous but, nonetheless, a necessary catalyst for change; as, without it remains only a shell of a human being, driven by pure impulse and self-centeredness. Regret arrives with introspection, which Jung warned would not come easily. As I’ve noted many times before, self-esteem is bullshit, being built on a weak foundation; so, rather than feeling excessively good about our actions, we ought to learn how to take pride in our capacity for self-reflection and our willingness to tolerate its attendant sense of shame in a genuine quest to become better than we are.

Wittgenstein’s Confession by Jonathan Beale

1 Comment

  1. I don’t know if “regret” defines the feeling for me. There are events in my life I feel badly about, but I also realize in the “full picture” had to happen about; One does not negate the other nor lesson the intensity of feeling badly. In the movie the idea of Bob demonstrating selflessness is the type of self deception many practice to rationalize behavior(s). I’ve come to feel it’s a constructive self-insight to analyze what I perceive to be an act of “selflessness” on my part-because invariably it never is.
    At the end of the day all we have is our character-as said by me countless times to my students.
    It is what come across in all of our interactions-consciously or otherwise.
    It dictates who we are and the path we will follow.

    Liked by 1 person

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