It is my belief that character is revealed in the tails of existence, that we can only know a person by witnessing their deeds in times of extreme adversity and great abundance. But I think I can further refine my position on the revelation of character by introducing another dimension: other people. Extreme adversity and great abundance can be experienced in social circumstances, in the presence of others, or it can be experienced alone, in a solitary fashion. Which gives us the following 2×2, and thus, four ways in which a person’s character can be revealed:
Solitary Adversity is, to me, best exemplified by a passage from John Vailliant’s The Tiger:
“ “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.”
Essentially, a person in utter isolation whose only immediate problem is to satisfy the most basic of human necessities—food, water, shelter, warmth—acts in a way that reveals much about themselves. Do they disregard their humanity or cling steadfastly to it? In such a situation how do they perceive and treat themselves, and how do they interact with the environment around them?
Solitary Abundance is somewhat simpler. Imagine that a person is completely free for a day. They get to wake up when they like. They have no constraints on energy, attention or time. They have the material resources to cover anything they could conceivably want to do. They don’t have to be anywhere, see anyone, or do anything. The only obligations they have are those they impose upon themselves? What a person in this situation does reveals much.
How is a person’s character revealed by Social Abundance? Envision a celebration held in a person’s honour. Perhaps it’s their birthday. Or perhaps a particularly good or great deed of theirs is being recognised. How does this person deal with such intense and positive attention? Are they humbled by it? Does it awaken in them a sense of hunger, an animal desire for more time spent towering over others? Is such attention embarrassing, or painful. Does it fill them with pride, with gratitude?
Finally, we come to Social Adversity. And what greater example of this is there than complete and utter humiliation? How does a person respond when they are the butt of the joke? How do they respond when others treat him, not just with dislike, but with an intense aversion, with disgust? When others humans see the person as non-human, does he live up to their expectations and respond to their cruelty with his own malice? Or does he seek to be better than their expectations, enduring the attempted humiliation and disregard with dignity and magnanimity? Does he turn away, attempt to hide himself, or does he do as he has always done, despite the waves of contempt crashing into him?
So, four ways in which character is revealed: via solitary and social abundance, and solitary and social adversity.