I have failed my greatest tests of character. I admit that doesn’t look good on a t–shirt. I suppose I could try to equivocate, or even slip out of this admission entirely. I might say that a test of character is “an instance in which one is faced with a situation that challenges the social norms of one’s culture.” That half-assed sociology student’s definition would enable me to meet any challenge with buckets of character to spare. But hell, I can barely understand what it says. My people didn’t define a test of character that way. For them it was, “you want to do a thing you know ain’t right.”
Like everyone, I’ve demonstrated my tarnished character many times in my life, maybe two or three times a day since I turned three years old. Mostly the small things defeat me. Watching Popeye smack the fool out of Bluto while I should have been cleaning my room. Drinking beer at school when someone was around to take my picture as evidence. Blowing off Biology because English was more fun. By the way, if they don’t want that to happen then they shouldn’t make you collect bugs for Biology while they let you make movies for English. These were small tests, but I’ve failed many thousands of them, and they add up. They add up to exactly not a damn thing, in my opinion. They’re just the price of having bigger frontal lobes than the other primates. That’s right, I jumped off the house to impress a girl because my lobes are big.
But bigger challenges have often annihilated me. And I don’t remember anyone walking behind me dangling a carrot in front of my face. I embraced character corrosion all on my own. For example, my heart told me that dropping out of college was the wrong move. My brain, gut, gall bladder, and pancreas did too. I didn’t listen or even care. Later on, I knew with mathematical certainty that when I walked into the totally nude bar with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red in my right hand and a bottle of Gatorade in my left, it would result in me starting a fight and waking up the next morning in a pool of vomit and blood. Did it anyway. I haven’t always done the most awful thing possible. I have good days. But I have faced decisions about cruel behavior, illicit substances, illegal activities, procrastination, prevarication, and degradation of the temple that is my body. I made the wrong choice pretty often. And I admit that these decisions do mean something to me when I take my character out to examine it at night.
But my most devastating character tests have involved women. I’ve chosen well at times, emphatically so in the case of my current wife. But generally, getting involved with a woman has turned my character into a pillar of salt. I’ve fallen for women who reviled me, women who ignored me, and women who thought they liked me okay until our first date. I always knew I was making the wrong choice, but I didn’t possess the character to say no. I chased women whose boyfriends rightly threatened to kill me, and I caught women only to break their hearts. I was stupid enough to fall for my best friend’s wife, and reckless enough to marry the human least suitable on the entire planet to be my spouse. Note that I included both genders in that statement to give you an idea of the real scope of my blunder. These were my greatest tests, and unfortunately I’m a sucker for women, a sucker for love, and a sucker for bad choices about both.
Thank God for my current wife. Without her I’d probably fall into every bottomless crevasse of character subversion that I walk past.
They say that suffering builds character. Well, I don’t remember a single time that shrieking agony, even the emotional kind, built my character. Not a bit, not even at the atomic level. It just pissed me off. Occasionally it made me sad, but mostly I wanted to pry off someone’s testicles, yank out their eyes, and nail the testicles into the empty sockets. I guess that’s just me. If suffering builds character, why do so many people lead wretched lives, yet you wouldn’t trust them to scrub bird shit off a statue of Yogi Bear?
I’m going to assume that at some points in my life I did build a little character. I can resist accepting a gritty crust of bread as payment to dry gulch an orphan for her lunch money and her Hello Kitty backpack. I do have a modest capacity for doing the right thing. How did I build this smidge of character? It seems like on the few occasions that my character stretched, it filled me with frustration. Regret and even nausea often followed. These disturbing symptoms appeared when I decided to do a right thing and then stick with that decision throughout the complete denial of the thing I’d rather be doing. I would think, “Ah this is what it’s like to do the right thing. I am building character, and it will make it easier to feel even more frustrated and shitty the next time I do the right thing. Goody—I’ll go ahead and start getting extra frustrated now to be sure I don’t miss it next time around.”
I guess building character’s like building a muscle. If I work to make the right decisions now, I get better at making them next time, no matter how big a frustrated dope I feel like. I can now hear the generations of my people more clearly, saying to me, “Show some character, boy. To hell with that suffering shit. Just do what you ought to, get a big dose of frustration and nausea, and learn to like it.”