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Character – How does change happen?
There may be individuals with a radically reformed character. Several theories offer reasons why this may be possible.
After having been a bad person, is it later possible to become a much better individual? To be a genuinely reformed character? To develop personal virtues which are the opposites of previous reprehensible conduct?
Is it possible to replace a life of crime with honest living? Swap an erotic interest in children for normal sexual desire? Convert a streak of violence to self-control? Or change being consumed by self-hatred into compassion for and acceptance of oneself?
Is radical transformation of character really possible? And if so how might one suppose this can happen?
Character of Oskar Groening
The so-called ‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz’, Oskar Groening played his part in a monstrous crime against humanity. As an enthusiastic young fascist who regarded the Jews as subhuman, he had willingly made an oath of loyalty to the fanatical Waffen-SS. A junior NCO, his secret role was to count out the money the Nazis stole from the Jews and engage in a sham bureaucratic process sorting out their luggage. This deceived the prisoners arriving at the death camp into believing one day their property would be returned, so as to keep them calm and ready to accept orders not knowing their real fate.
Later in life he revealed that during the war he had seen the Jews as the enemy on the home front and saying “we exterminated nothing but enemies”. However, he volunteered his complicity in one of the greatest crimes in history, even knowing this honesty about his ‘former self’ meant his trial and, if convicted, his probable death in jail. He wanted his testimony to be used to challenge those who deny the Holocaust took place. “I saw the gas chambers. I saw the crematoria. I saw the open fires. I would like you to believe these atrocities happened”.
Is this an example of a radical change of character?
Character of Muhammadu Buhari
Another possible example is that of former dictator Muhammadu Buhari who ruled Nigeria in the mid-1980’s. He sent soldiers to the streets with whips. Around 500 politicians, officials and businessmen were imprisoned in his campaign against waste and corruption. Critics of the regime, including the Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti, were also put behind bars. Buhari passed laws allowing indefinite detention without trial and imposed a decree to restrict press freedom, under which two journalists were jailed. The execution of three young men, led to international outcry. The war against indiscipline was carried to “sadistic levels, glorying in the humiliation of a people,” wrote the Nobel laureate for literature Wole Soyinka.
However, later in life Buhari has managed to persuade Nigerians he is a reformed character who respects civil liberties. Is he really a born-again democrat who will never return to his autocratic ways and human rights abuses? There is reason to think so. He wants to manage the future for the better by beating corruption and challenging the Islamist militants. He has contested the presidential election three times and lost, and ended up in court perhaps thus showing his commitment to the rule of law.
Theories of character change
So how can anyone radically change? I believe the various theories have both an element of truth and error in them. Here are some of the main ones on offer.
Everyone is basically good. It is thought we just need the right social environment, (e.g. available employment, accessible health care, satisfactory housing, educational opportunity, good family upbringing, and so on) to change our character for the better.
There is a restorative force in nature. It is thought we need techniques of healing which can harness this.
There is a deeper reality beyond us (consisting of benevolence, compassion, justice, joy, peace etc.). It is thought we need an appropriate form of personal therapy or spiritual practice to learn to connect with this.
There is a higher universal consciousness beyond that of the perspective of individual awareness. It is thought it is possible to discover the latter through practising control over body and mind.
There is a Divine Being with power to free us from ignorance, sorrow and evil. It is thought we need to devote ourselves to and believe in this.
Each person has an inner freedom of decision together with a higher perception of what is true and good. It is assumed we are obliged to make ethical choices in line with this.
Swedenborg and character change
The religious theories of character change often involve the idea of a transforming divine power. According to Swedenborg’s philosophy there is a Divine Being who consists of pure love and wisdom from which good things flow into the world e.g. human insight, virtue, hope, understanding, and contentment. This creative force, he maintains, is the power that enables character improvement.
His view is that before we can be changed inwardly, we need to co-operate with this inflow. This can start to happen as one practises self-examination of daily life without either fooling or punishing oneself. Each time we resolve with the strength of the Divine Being to change our ways in line with what we are learning about ourselves, he says we can hope to be gradually transformed with enlightened feelings.