If growth and mastery of self are your goals then you should occupy yourself with the business of discovering your faults and weaknesses of character. How else will you know what you need to work on in yourself if you are not aware of where specifically the focus of the work needs to be applied? You can’t fix something if you don’t first discover where the problems lie and what then needs to be fixed. Thus, it would not benefit you to avoid the ugly parts of yourself as these are the key signals pointing out areas where growth is needed.
Yet, much of the time we are averse to confronting our weaknesses. We tend to stick to doing things that we know we are good at and avoid things that remind us of our faulty character traits. This is of course completely justifiable if you are in a vulnerable place and/or still healing from a significant blow to your sense of strength. There are times to just focus on self preservation. But if you are on the path toward self mastery, then you must have the courage to invite criticism of yourself and seek out your faults in order to know what work needs to be done. Unfortunately, we have been socialized to believe that if a person points out our faults that this is an undesirable thing that constitutes rudeness or spite. We think this to be an undesirable quality in a companion and tend to keep friends that always take our side and tell us how great we are in every situation. We have even collectively come to accept this as a quality of a “good friend”. But are these the types of friends that will help you grow?
Abu Hamad Al Ghazali, in book XXII of his Ihya ulum al din; On Discipling the Soul says:
“…things have come to such a pass with us that the most hateful of all people are those who counsel us and draw our attention to our defects. This is almost expressive of a weakness in our faith, for bad traits of character are vipers and stinging scorpions, and were someone to tell us that under our clothes there lurked a scorpion we would account this a great favour, and be delighted, and would occupy ourselves with removing and killing the scorpion in question. Yet the injury and pain it could cause to the body would last no more than a day, while ugly traits of character cause an injury in the very core of one’s heart, which, it may be feared, will endure even after death and evermore, or for thousands of years. Nevertheless we are not delighted when someone calls these things to our notice, nor do we busy ourselves with removing them; instead we repay the one who thus counsels us in kind, and say, ‘What about you? You also do this, that and the other,’ so that resentment towards him distracts us from gaining any profit by his advice.” (Winter, 1995, p. 53)
Why do we allow for one pointing out the scorpion but not our bad character traits? The answer, namely, is our ego, our pride that doesn’t readily allow us to own up to our own faults. But know that in order to eventually free yourself from these bad character traits it is necessary to at least be open to those traits being brought to your attention, if not seeking them out specifically. Therefore, invite your friends to point out where you need to grow or what they think you could work on. If they’re good at it, they’ll do it compassionately and from the angle of constructive criticism. In the worst case scenario, if they are wrong or if their criticism is more about their projection of their own anger, you won’t find yourself reactive to the accusation quite as much, you’ll be able to hear it take it into consideration , check yourself and move on, mostly having compassion for them for being so angry. If, on the other hand, you believe they are wrong about their criticism of you and you find yourself reacting strongly to it and rejecting it or being offended by it, then this is a good clue that they are in fact right in some way about their observation and your rejection of it is coming from the part of you that wishes to deny your faults and protect your ego.
Often times a reactive reaction to someone’s comments or just the observation of another’s behavior can be a flag for you to key into an area that you need to pay attention to that reflects your own character fault. For instance, if you are overly bothered by someone who isn’t generous and freely giving of what he has, there may be some part of you that has some issue in the same regard, either at one extreme or the other. In other words, it may not necessarily mean that you have the exact same issue to the same degree. It could be that you tend toward the opposite, for instance that you are too freely giving of what you have and that you need to put that into balance by being more practical. On the other hand, if you get annoyed by someone at work who is overly judgmental about everything, it may not mean that you are judgmental to the same degree, but that in certain circumstances you too are too quick to pass judgment and it is something that you don’t accept about yourself. The idea is that if you had no personal imbalance with the character faults you see in others, you would be more likely to perceive them as other without having a significant reaction to them. You would be able to accept their actions and know that you are not them.
Paying attention to your reactions to other peoples’ behavior, as well as inviting friends to point out your own are useful ways to discover your own faults and gain insight into where you need to put yourself into balance by working toward perfecting those bad character traits. In order to advance beyond those uglier parts of yourself, you must be willing to confront them and actively work towards eradicating them through conscious awareness, self discipline and behavior modification. Once you’ve identified the bad character trait in yourself, the remedy is to do it’s opposite. Not with the goal of taking on the other extreme and thus being imbalanced on the opposite end of the scale, but to even out the scale, with the goal of moving more toward the middle. The middle path is the best path.
More on that next time…