Many things reveal character. How you respond to adversity. The choices you make. How you handle success. The words you use. The actions you take.
One thing that is particularly potent? Isolation. Loneliness. Separation. Disconnection.
“ “The most terrifying and important test for a human being is to be in absolute isolation,” he explained. “A human being is a very social creature, and ninety percent of what he does is done only because other people are watching. Alone, with no witnesses, he starts to learn about himself—who is he really? Sometimes, this brings staggering discoveries. Because nobody’s watching, you can easily become an animal: it is not necessary to shave, or to wash, or to keep your winter quarters clean—you can live in shit and no one will see. You can shoot tigers or choose not to shoot. You can run in fear and nobody will know. You have to have something—some force, which allows and helps you to survive without witnesses.”
Perhaps this is the true power of philosophy. The tenets of stoicism, of Zen Buddhism, or of whatever philosophy you choose to live by, impart a model. They give you a standard.
“We need to set our affections on some good man and keep him constantly before our eyes, so that we may live as if he were watching us and do everything as if he saw what we were doing,” says Seneca in his letters.
The test of isolation is not just found in the extreme environments of the world, like the Siberian jungle where Vaillant’s account is set. It lies closer to home. When we have a day off. When we have our home to ourselves. When we are left unsupervised at work or entrusted with a responsibility. All are tests of isolation. Tests of character,
Seneca goes on to say that “misdeeds are greatly diminished if a witness is always standing near intending doers.” Where do you find such a witness? Posterity is the richest source for models. It is easy to unearth stories of great women and men. Whether you look to posterity, or to our own time, it matters not. What matters is that you have someone, as Marcus Aurelius did in his brother, “whose character challenged me to improve my own.”
The ancients knew the power of a standard. We would do well to remember it.
“Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.”