A goal of mine for 2016 is re-reading the books which have been especially influential in my life over the past six years as I’ve worked to define a new ‘normal’ after Charlotte’s death, composting grief into growth.
I plucked my prize short-list of books from bookcases and stacks on my office floor and stacked the volumes, large and small, beside my reading lamp in my library as symbolic “scholar’s chair” to be re-read and savored one by one.
At the top of my stash, and the book I’m currently re-reading, is James Hillman’s book, The Force of Character and the Lasting Life (Random House, NY., 1999. 237 pp). Hillman is a Jungian therapist, philosopher, and eclectic scholar who is also a trenchant and compelling writer. He doesn’t write because he has to say something; he writes because he has something rich to say!
The Force of Character is unlike any book on aging you’ve ever read. In it, this wise and erudite therapist invites the reader to re-frame aging and growing old, to re-imagine death and dying in fresh ways revolving around his central thesis that aging is Life crystallizing our distinct and non-transferable character. It is THAT character, the quirky and different, the particular and peculiar way of living and being which defines us and which lives on in hearts and lives when we die; it is our character which lasts. I believe this book ought to be read and discussed in Senior Centers across the land.
Here’s the way Hillman succinctly sums up character:
“By definition, character refers to the distinguishing marks that make a thing recognizably different from every other thing. Each character is held to itself by the qualities peculiar to it. It is necessarily limited by its own qualifications. A ‘bad’ character could refer only to an utterly empty one, a person with no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever, innocent of qualities, a blank. If sins are your only qualities, you may be without morals, but not without character . . . . I am compelled and constrained by what I do not control. Character forces me to encounter each event in my peculiar style. It forces me to differ. I walk through life oddly. No one else walks as I do, and this is my courage, my dignity, my integrity, my morality, and my ruin.” (pp 179-181)
Hillman is all about ‘lightening up’ when it comes to aging and character. Right on cue on a recent morning, I got a hearty laugh from an unexpected source. After reading and underlining in Hillman’s pages, I put the book aside and walked outside onto my west patio overlooking the irrigation canal and my grass field, my mind filled with new perspective on my own aches and pains. I walked to the double gates where I paused in quiet contemplation, looking out over the field and beyond.
“Na-a-a–a … Na-a-a–a!” brought me quickly back to this gentleman farmer’s reality. It was Tevye, my Nigerian goat, on the other side of the gates looking up at me ‘modeling’ the latest goat couture — and showing off his own ‘Old Goat’ Character! He was wearing a long stalk of dried weed plant wedged between his horns and ears. I have no idea where he picked it up or what he was ‘into’ to achieve his debonair look. All I could think of was he’d “stuck a feather in his cap, and called it macaroni!”
I burst out laughing, knowing that Hillman himself would be the loudest guffaw over Tevye’s impromptu demonstration of “character”!
Three ‘old goats’ shared a laugh, a demonstration, and a truth that day. What’s it all about? It’s about embracing and celebrating what’s non-transferable in us, what’s particular and peculiar; it’s about the one-of-a-kind feathers we’ve stuck in your cap which those who know and love us will call macaroni!
Joseph Harvill, Scottiephile