Earlier this month we began breaking down the fascinating writings of Lau Tzu a mystic philosopher of ancient China, best known as the author of the Tao Te Ching (The Way and Its Power), published in the 3rd century, who wrote:
Watch your thoughts, they become your words.
Watch your words, they become your actions.
Watch your actions, they become your habits.
Watch your habits, they become your character.
Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.
Last week we unpacked, “Be careful of your actions,” which you can read here.
This one is trickier for me. Starting with my understanding of character. There is, “to be a character,” which typically refers to someone eccentric or interesting. There is also your characteristics – the unchangeable features of who you are designed by biology, culture, and community. And then there is the concept of having good character or being someone worth knowing. I imagine we’re discussing the third of these – having character similar to something a Jane Austen heroine might seek.
Collins English Dictionary interprets character as someone with the ability to deal effectively with difficult, unpleasant, or dangerous situations.
Merriam-Webster – Moral excellence or firmness.
To be honest I don’t think either of these is what Lau Tzu is talking about. Our habits make up our daily routines and our lives to a certain extent. In watching our habits we’re making sure that we are showing up in the world as our best selves. When someone asks how we are doing do we answer honestly? Do we scroll through our phones while people are talking? Are we cutting people off in traffic?These aren’t major moments in our days, possibly only a few seconds. A quick snap decision we make to respond on autopilot, half listen, or put our wants before someone else’s safety can become habitual. And even if it is just a quick moment or time grab on our part to, “get something done real quick.” We’re choosing to put ourselves first at a cost to someone else.
I often write about the importance of putting yourself first and investing in meeting your own needs before taking on anyone else’s. But here we are facing the opposite of that inclination – when someone chooses to put themselves first at the risk of harm or hurt to someone else. Even a gesture as small as scrolling instead of listening to the person we are with can be hurtful. Beyond that the quick choice to cut someone else off in traffic could result in an accident that potentially puts many people, including ourselves, in harms way.
Therefore the character that Lay Tzu is describing is who we are when we think no one will be hurt. Who we choose to be when we think no one is paying attention or will know it was us. How do we behave when given the opportunity. Do we rise to the occasion or do we take what we can get? All of us fall somewhere on a wide spectrum of character and our positions are constantly shifting with every decision we make. Character is not a fixed or defined absolute, we are constantly shifting and changing, growing and learning. Being watchful of our smaller habits helps us all bring the best of ourselves to the table and to the world.