The freedom of character

7 minute read

A couple of years ago, I participated in a yoga class for the first time. It was a ‘mindfulness yoga’ class to be precise. A form of yoga where simple movements are followed in a slow sequence, with plenty of breaks to feel what the effect of these movements is on you. Now, I imagine this sounds pretty boring to most people. If I want to feel the effect of movement on my body, why don’t I just go for a good run? But in fact, mindfulness yoga managed to show me something new. It was a place I could visit every week and allow myself to feel soft. To feel vulnerable and safe. A place where I could exercise my body, while being absolutely sure that I would never ever push myself. It was a place where I could take a break from all the expectations I endowed on myself throughout the week, and just breath.

This practice opened a new path for me. A new journey, of exploring my own softness. In a strange way, I felt at the time like this one hour in the week was the only moment in the week where I was ever truly alive. And in turn it pointed me to other practices as well, such as meditation and ecstatic dance. It was the reason I started writing the very blog you are reading right now, two years ago. It was a journey that opened another path in my life. A parallel path, if you like, to making a career and wanting to become successful. A path of connecting to other people in an open, vulnerable and sometimes spiritual way.

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It was through this path that I also met Joris van der Geest, a fellow dancer at ecstatic dance and, as it turned out, a writer just debuting his first novel: De Oneindige Marshmallow Test (The Infinite Marshmallow Experiment). The main character in the book, Bastiaan Timmermans, is an investment banker in green energy, living a life of cutthroat competition with other bankers. From early on in the book, he discovers ecstatic dance. A place where he can allow himself to just breath and turn a blind eye to his thinking mind. To feel and experience, without having to be afraid that someone will take advantage of him. At this point, I saw something of a parallel of Bastiaan’s discovery to my own life. Except in my own case, it was my own expectations instead of competing investment bankers, that forced me to push myself from day to day. This parallel sparked my enthusiasm to read on.

As the book continues, the life of the main character proofs hard to combine with the investment banker’s newfound passion for dancing and other tantric practices. Soon enough, his career slowly starts falling apart. He judges himself for not being sharp enough, as one of his close colleagues frames him and discredits his position in the investment world. He starts asking himself if he turned too soft, perhaps.

In the chapters that follow, we see how Bastiaan tries to mend his collapsing career and social life. He tries to get back on track. To do ‘the right thing’. And in doing so, different examples of moral philosophies come by. None of these seem to help him get his life back together, however.

The first example of such a philosophy is where Bastiaan justifies his actions, taking only the expected outcome of these actions into account. A little suffering right now is ok, in return for a better future. Either suffering on his own account, or on that of the people close to him. This idea is called utilitarianism, and is better expressed by the aphorism “The ends justify the means”. Bastiaan takes this idea too far however, as he tries to blackmail an old colleague into sending him money, by making him think that he is sexually abusing his colleague’s daughter. In his view, the world would be better off if he was in possession of that money, so the blackmailing was surely justified, was it not?

In line with this idea, Bastiaan also justifies neglecting the people around him, in return for a better future. Maybe if he works a little bit harder right now. Maybe if he makes one more deal. Maybe then he can allow himself to make some time for his girlfriend. To connect with his friends.

The title of the book, the infinite marshmallow test, is a reflection of this sentiment. The Stanford marshmallow experiment was a study on delayed gratification in 1972 led by psychologist Walter Mischel. In this experiment, a child was offered a single marshmallow. However, the child was also told that if it would refrain from eating the marshmallow for some period of time, it would be offered a second marshmallow. In other words, imposing suffering (no marshmallow) on yourself in the now for a more successful (2 marshmallows) future.

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“Maybe if I have just a little bite, it won’t be noticed?”

The second example comes to light in the relationship between Bastiaan and his girlfriend. From early on, she makes it clear to him that honesty is to be the most important value in their relationship. The moral law imposed by this value, is that lying is not allowed. This idea is known as Deontology. What is right or wrong is determined by a specific rule or set of rules. In Bastiaan’s experience, he is not breaking this rule in any way, when he withholds from this girlfriend that he has a child with another woman. After all, withholding information is not the same as lying. So why would he tell her about the child?

It is interesting that neither of these two moral philosophies prevent Bastiaan’s life from disintegrating further. With every step he takes, every move he makes, he seems to get further away from the life he says he wants to live. And I believe this has as much to do with Bastiaan, as it has to do with the way in which these moral philosophies oversimplicate his life. The idea that Bastiaan never seems to come across, is that of virtue ethics. The third mayor theory in modern moral philosophy. Virtue ethics, or character ethics, describes the character of a person as the primary force for ethical choices. It values character over the training of ourselves to refrain from lying, or following some set of rules. Over training ourselves to never eat the marshmallow, because there might be more of them in the future. It states that we should train ourselves in virtuous character traits. We should train ourselves in bravery as well as modesty, creativity as well as realism, justice as well as compassion, generosity as well as gratitude. And by training these traits in ourselves. By working on a balanced character with a strong foothold in any of these virtuous traits, we will make the right decision. We will do the ethical thing.

Thinking about rules or consequences will never be enough to prepare us for the next ethical dilemma that we will come across on our paths in life. Humans have done great things by our power of thinking and abstraction. But the more we think about something, the less likely we are to be in contact with what we feel. That what we feel to be the right thing to do. In any complex decision, especially when time is limited, our most trusted ally is and will always be our character. The character that has been forged by our personal paths in life. By our parents and mentors. By the ups and downs that we have experienced. And we should never forget that we have the power, the freedom, of choice at our side. The freedom to choose to live in line with virtuous character traits, as to develop them and know, that we are a little bit better today than we were yesterday. Start being free today.

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