Character Transformation

William James

Aristotle argued that extreme vices, such as willful self-indulgence and stinginess, are incurable. Such a claim makes Ebeneezer Scrooge’s fictional transformation all the more remarkable.

As a general rule, Aristotle is probably right. Deeply ingrained habits are difficult to change. Yet some of us are acquainted with a present-day Jean Valjean or Saul of Tarsus, someone who has overcome vicious character flaws through a sudden transformation.

Several weeks ago I rediscovered William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, which was published well over 100 years ago. In Varieties, he takes religious conversion seriously, especially when it results in an observable change in behavior, character, or personality.

At the end of his chapter on the religion of healthy mindedness, James quotes an anonymous account shared by a friend:

“At the urgent request of friends, and with no faith and hardly any hope (possibly owing to a previous unsuccessful experience with a Christian Scientist), our little daughter was placed under the care of a healer, and cured of a trouble about which the physician had been very discouraging in his diagnosis. This interested me, and I began studying earnestly the method and philosophy of this method of healing. Gradually an inner peace and tranquility came to me in so positive a way that my manner changed greatly. My children and friends noticed the change and commented upon it. All feelings of irritability disappeared. Even the expression of my face changed noticeably.

“I had been bigoted, aggressive, and intolerant in discussion, both in public and private. I grew broadly tolerant and receptive toward the views of others. I had been nervous and irritable, coming home two or three times a week with a sick headache induced, as I then supposed, by dyspepsia and catarrh. I grew serene and gentle, and the physical troubles entirely disappeared. I had been in the habit of approaching every business interview with an almost morbid dread. I now meet every one with confidence and inner calm.

“I may say that the growth has all been toward the elimination of selfishness. I do not mean simply the grosser, more sensual forms, but those subtler and generally unrecognized kinds, such as express themselves in sorrow, grief, regret, envy, etc. It has been in the direction of a practical, working realization of the immanence of God and the Divinity of man’s true, inner self.”

Notice how accurately this man describes 21st century problems, including intolerance, selfishness, and anxiety. Today we might use different terms for the physical symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, such as nausea and indigestion rather than dyspepsia and catarrh. But the rest of his self-diagnosis sounds contemporary.

James’s purpose in sharing the account is not to judge the literal truth value of Christian Science beliefs. For example, he is not interested in establishing whether sickness is actually an illusion or whether God is the principle of unconditional and unchanging love. He simply wants to observe and consider the practical effects of a system of beliefs. If the effects are favorable and profound, those beliefs should not be dismissed as false. Their pragmatic value can shed light on the human condition.

James shows how people with different dispositions and mindsets respond to different sets of beliefs. For example, someone who believes in the essential goodness of human nature (“the healthy-minded”) is more likely to change by ignoring evil and accentuating the positive aspects of her life. On the other hand, someone whose worldview has been shaped by a greater awareness of pain, suffering, and the ultimate futility of mortal life (“the sick soul”) will require a much different type of rebirth, a different passageway to change.

Regardless of why or how people change, the fact that they do change ought to empower us. Knowing that someone, anyone, has experienced a character transformation can have the practical effect of giving the rest of us hope — hope in the potential goodness and malleability of our own character.

With this post, I am beginning a series of features on real people who have experienced a profound shift in their way of thinking and acting. I will be investigating credible reports of character transformation. How permanent are such transformations? Can the changes be verified? What beliefs and actions generally lead to such changes?

My intent is to explore real accounts, whether they’re based on a religious conversion or a new philosophy of life and whether they result in unselfishness, serenity, unprecedented confidence, or some other characteristic of a reformed life.

I want to be inspired by authentic stories of personal change.

Responding to Anxiety with Courage and a Glimmer of Hope

Aristotle

As the number one mental health issue in North America, anxiety is often a debilitating problem for both teens and adults. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that up to 25 percent of teenagers suffer from anxiety disorders. While most forms are highly treatable, the majority of sufferers do not seek professional treatment.

The relentless nature of anxiety can provide a rigorous test of character. Many sources of anxiety, such as toxic family relationships and economic hardship, give rise to a sense of hopelessness. But compassionate friends and loved ones can help those who suffer to discover the courage, wisdom, and inner strength to move forward.

Social scientific research suggests that people with anxiety often underestimate their capacity for courage. In a 2007 study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Clemson psychologist Cynthia Pury and her colleagues make the distinction between general and personal courage. They report that when most people think about courage, they see it as a fearless and confident attribute possessed only by others. This is the definition of general courage—the type of heroic effort we recognize and praise in other people. Personal courage, on the other hand, is the type we might ascribe to ourselves. People with the self-awareness to see their personal actions as courageous tend to define courage as a response to vulnerability, anxiety, and fear. In fact, this is the type we see most often in real life. Ordinary people become heroes when they rise up to do what needs to be done — in spite of weakness.

Aristotle would likely agree with modern social science that anxiety, fear, and self-doubt are built into courage. He suggests that courage is not founded on personal strength or a feeling of invincibility. Instead, it’s built on the conviction that we’re acting in the service of a noble cause, regardless of how prepared we are for battle. According to Aristotle, knowing that we’re doing the right thing empowers us to manage the pain that frequently accompanies self-sacrifice.

Without a doubt, moving forward in the face of chronic anxiety takes courage. But taking courage is not easy when an intensely negative and overpowering emotion is flowing through our minds. Telling someone to “stop worrying” or to “have courage” is almost always misguided advice. To cultivate courage, we need at least a slight glimmer of hope. This hope can come from a trusted friend who convinces us that relationships can improve and that our personal goals are worth fighting for — even against all odds.

Many therapists recommend a simple activity to help anxiety sufferers step away from their emotions and allow the more rational part of the brain to reclaim executive control. The first step is to articulate and then write down a concrete list of things we’re worried about. Sometimes the very act of identifying what lies behind an oppressive emotion can offer immediate relief.

The second step is to separate the items in our list into two categories: things we can control and things we can’t. Most of the things we worry about include both aspects, one that’s well within our power to influence and another that’s almost entirely beyond our control. For example, if I’m worried about an upcoming test at school, I should realize that I can control how much time I study for the test. But I can’t guarantee a passing score and I can’t control what my peers or my instructor might think of me if I do poorly. If I’m worried about attending a social gathering, I can control whether I approach people with a smile and a friendly greeting. But I can’t control whether or not a stranger likes me based on her first impression.

The worries we can’t do much about are frequently the most paralyzing because they’re accompanied by a sense of powerlessness. If spelling them out on paper doesn’t help us let them go, we can try other techniques like mindfulness breathing exercises or taking a walk in nature. Whatever relaxation method we choose, at some point we need to embrace the fact that some worries impose an unreasonable burden that we can’t afford to carry.

So what about the things we can control? Recent studies on test anxiety have found that at least some stress can be a good thing. Students who tend to do well on exams learn to embrace their anxiety and channel it toward greater focus and positive mental energy. Rather than trying to stop worrying about an exam, they transform their anxiety into excitement. They commit themselves to a plan of study and then anxiously immerse themselves in what they can control. In the language of character development, they create the conditions for courage by resolving on a plan of action.

Anxiety is an urgent public health challenge with no easy solutions. But gentle encouragement and honest self-appraisal can often provide the hope we need to face our fears with courage and grace.

Online Learning as a Study in Character Development

“In front of excellence the immortal gods have put sweat, and long and steep is the way to it, and rough at first. But when you come to the top, then it is easy, even though it is hard.”

– Hesiod, Works and Days

Educators often warn students that online learning is not for everyone. Some students who perform well in a traditional classroom setting struggle to complete online courses. So what factors have the greatest impact on student success?

Social scientific research indicates that many students simply lack the motivation and persistence to take advantage of online resources. In this post, I’ll explore five tips that can help any student become a better online learner.

1) Find your motivation

What motivates you personally to learn online? Online courses can empower students with the advantages of greater convenience and learning efficiency, more timely feedback, and lower costs. Sometimes these benefits provide all the motivation you need to complete an online course, or even pursue an online degree.

However, the lack of face-to-face contact with a devoted instructor and mentor can be an obstacle for some students. One way to overcome this obstacle is for learners to maintain frequent contact with fellow online students. Online peers can supply valuable insights on how to work through personal challenges with technology and maintain motivation throughout a long semester. (1)

Family members can also provide vital support and encouragement when they understand the benefits of online learning. If you need additional incentives, enlist friends and family members to help you set up extrinsic rewards for persisting in the online learning process. A weekend getaway, a movie night, or another well-earned break can provide a light at the end of your online learning tunnel.

2) Courage before confidence

The courage to undertake something new often precedes confidence in doing so. This is particularly true for students who are less experienced with internet technology. When you begin an online course, it’s natural to experience self-doubt and fear.

You will need to move outside your comfort zone and embrace the risks that come with trying something new. Very few worthwhile pursuits ever come with a guarantee of success. And the fear of failure can severely limit your confidence in learning online.

But confidence and hope have never been manufactured out of thin air. This is where personal courage comes into play. A team of psychologists at Clemson University recently explored the characteristics of what they call personal courage. (2)

While we typically see in other people a fearless and confident courage, personal courage tends to be more about acting in the face of difficulty, fear, vulnerability, and anxiety. When you find and exercise your personal courage, you will begin to experience the small successes that lead to confidence in an online learning environment.

 3) Transform anxiety into excitement

Recent studies on test anxiety have found that students who do well on exams possess the ability to transform their anxieties into greater concentration and excitement. (3) These students are able to manage a moderate level of stress to help focus their minds and provide the mental energy to persist in problem solving.

Of course, high levels of anxiety over taking an online exam or using unfamiliar technology can be debilitating. Many students find relief from intense stress by identifying and writing down a list of their specific worries. Such a list can be divided into two columns: things you can control and things you cannot control.

For the things you can control, like preparing for an exam, formulate a plan for resolving the anxiety (e.g., schedule ample time for exam preparation). For things you cannot control, like having to take an exam, embrace your anxiety and channel it toward greater focus and determination to succeed.

4) Cultivate disciplined study habits

Aristotle promoted a simple idea that is as true today as it was 2,400 years ago: Human beings love to fall into routine, to cultivate deeply-rooted habits. When we develop habits, we naturally expend less mental and emotional energy in figuring out what to do and how to do it.

A set of tasks that was initially strenuous or tedious becomes natural and easy to perform. Something that was originally irksome is now pleasurable. Students who take the time to cultivate rigorous study habits learn to enjoy studying with greater ease and consistency.

Set aside a block of uninterrupted time to study every day. Avoid the distractions of cell phones, email, and social media. Wake up early in the morning or find a quiet study room during the day. By maintaining a consistent habit of studying at the same time every day, you’ll soon discover the reality of online learning pleasure.

A recent study suggests that time management skills and disciplined study habits are even more important in successful learning than favorable attitudes toward instructors or personal interest in the subject matter. (4)

 5) Persistence is more important than intelligence

This tip is perhaps the most important for online learning excellence. Becoming a more independent learner and adapting to new online technology requires persistence. Persistence is even more important than knowledge and intelligence. (5)

If you’re relatively new to online learning, then you need to expect some small failures along the way. You might stumble on your first assignment as you figure out how to access online learning resources. You might find that you need to switch to an unfamiliar web browser, or upgrade to a faster computer.

If you do face obstacles with learning technology, be sure to communicate early on with your online instructor or course administrator. Don’t hesitate to ask for help in resolving your difficulties. But whatever you do, don’t give up. Learn from your mistakes and be patient with the quirks of your online course.

Some online resources are more accessible and instructionally sound than others and some learning management systems are more intuitive than others. But most online courses provide plenty of resources to help you navigate the learning process and gain the knowledge and skills you’re looking for.

Don’t hold back

It may be true that some students are more naturally suited for learning online. Some cultures might even be better than others in preparing students for the distinct rigors and study habits of online courses. (6)

But don’t fret about potential limitations that may or may not affect you. With a firm and disciplined commitment to study, the persistence to climb steep technology learning curves, and the courage to embrace risk in the face of personal limitations, you’ll personally have everything it takes to succeed.

NOTES

  1. See Carolyn Hart (2012). “Factors Associated With Student Persistence in an Online Program of Study: A Review of the Literature.” Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 11 (1), 19-42.
  2. Cynthia L. S. Pury, Robin M. Kowalski & Jana Spearman (2007). “Distinctions between general and personal courage.” The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2 (2), 99-114.
  3. See Alison Wood Brooks (2013). “Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement.” Journal of Experimental Psychology, 143 (3), 1144-1158.
  4. M. J. N. Mendezabal (2013). “Study Habits and Attitudes: The Road to Academic Success.” Open Science Repository Education, Online (open-access), e70081928. doi:10.7392/Education.70081928.
  5. See Hart (2012).
  6. See Miguel A. Cerna & Ksenia Pavliushchenko (2015). “Influence of Study Habits on Academic Performance of International College Students in Shanghai.” Higher Education Studies, 5 (4), 42-55.

* A version of this article, “How to Make Online Learning Work for You,” was published in the October 2017, Fall Edition of Certification Magazine. Content republished by permission of TestOut Corporation.