The Reality of Character Defects
Is There Really Something Wrong?
I recently took a self-assessment evaluation online that attempts to assess a person from an aspect of the five major personality traits and their ten aspects recognized by most psychologists. From this, “The specialized, personalized report you will receive after completing the understandmyself.com process will help you understand your personality in great detail and aid you substantially in your understanding of others.”
I like using tools outside traditional AA to give me a broader perspective on my life. This was definitely worth my time. The report was a real good snapshot of me, though when I first looked at the results, I was a little shocked. The biggest example of this was my score on the trait of politeness. Here’s what it said.
“You are very low in politeness, which is one aspect of Agreeableness. Your score puts you at the 4th percentile for politeness. If you were one of 100 people in a room, you would be less polite than 95 of them and more polite than 4 of them.”
Oh no… This sounds like a character defect!
It went on to explain more about my lack of politeness. “People who are very low in politeness are not at all deferential to authority – nor are they obedient. They can be respectful, grudgingly, but only to people who clearly deserve and demand it, and they are very markedly willing to push back when challenged.”
Well, that’s at least a little better. It is something I could accept, but still I had work to be done. I admit I was at first rather proud of this observation of not being polite, because I prided myself in calling out baloney. Still, I’m not polite? I’ll have to come back to that.
So, here’s the “so what” if I were in traditional 12 step recovery. If I were to identify a lack of politeness as being a character defect, I would list it in step four, “[We] made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” which is the list of all the things we ever did wrong or that is wrong with us now.
According to AA, a follow on step would be to ask God to remove that character defect in step six, “[We] were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”
Before we go there, here’s an important question: is a lack of politeness truly a character fault?
As the report said, low in politeness is not to say I’m not courteous or respectful. That part of the report was sort of right. I address strangers as “sir” and “ma’am.” I usually let drivers into the lane in front of me. I hold hands with others during the Lord’s prayer in traditional meetings, despite my disbelief in their God.
Let’s take it further: can not being polite ever a virtue? I think so.
The most important virtue of not being polite is pointing out the real dangers in life when others deny or ignore it. Not being polite is a virtue when your doctor tells you that you need to lose weight or your mechanic says the brakes are worn beyond safety standards. Drill sergeants are well known for correcting people directly in their own charming way, and they get the job done effectively without politeness. Most of all, my favorite example of not being polite is comedy, especially satire. It brings laughter and release about the things in life that bring tension, even though sometimes that humor is at someone’s expense. All of these are all good things; certainly not defects.
The point of all this is not about politeness, but rather it is to point out the idea of removing all traits that may seem to be character defects may not be the best idea. I had to slow down, take a good look at myself, and think things through.
The nature of my philosophy, especially in my profession, calls for direct and honest communication. For sure it’s not how all my life should be conducted, but I consider my recovery both part philosophy and part practice. Not being polite is going to be a part of it. I’m going to keep it for several reasons.
My recovery journey has not been entirely smooth, and there have been a lot of the rough spots come from my asking the simple question “why?” about the program.
Yes, I know that’s not always polite, but this program demands action from me, so I think it’s fair to question it. I would dare to say there are many other traits labeled as character defects that also contain virtues, such as arrogance which can bring confidence and courage, or carelessness which can bring tranquility and acceptance. Exploring just this one example with me was worth the time. It was good to take a long and hard look at all my moral inventory and go beyond just making a lengthy list of things I would hate for my family to see.
It is important for me to know what is truly bad for me and what is truly good. From the beginning, the path prescribed to all of us in traditional recovery was based on a nebulous recipe facilitated by an intangible agent. The judgement of what was right and wrong all came through interpretation by others who believed in the nebulous and intangible. Those credentials weren’t enough for me, and I was not going to politely accept those positions.
I needed to do the solid, hard work beyond simply turning it over to a higher power. I had to ask the difficult questions to get to the core of the truth. From this effort I learned much about myself. Some of that led me to make adjustments for improvement and action, such as applying appropriate amounts of acceptance and restraint in my politeness example. Some of this led me to do nothing, such as simply being aware of myself.
The original serenity prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr said:
God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
AA’s version of the prayer now is:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
and Wisdom to know the difference.
The real wisdom of this prayer was taken away by AA when it removed the idea of changing the things that “should” be changed and replacing it with the charge to alter the things that “can” be changed. It took away the charge for one to think for one’s self and use one’s own discretion.
When possible, I tried to evaluate the good and bad in both ideas and actions because there can be hidden value in what some would call defects. The challenge for me was to decide what served me well and what did not. I wanted to only act on the things I should change.
Here’s the most important part to me. What is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ simply comes from my own personal truth and not from accepted values based on someone else’s faith. Once I knew what truly needed removed, I moved forward better prepared with real tools for a happy life.
“In a free society, no one can, will, or should take your personal truth away from you. You can stick with that to any extreme you want, provided you don’t subtract from the freedoms of someone else.”
-Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson
Author: Chuck S.