Character Development

Not everyone grows up to be an astronaut,
Not everyone was born to be a king,
Not everyone can be Freddie Mercury,
But everyone can raise a glass and sing.
Well I haven’t always been a perfect person,
Well I haven’t done what mum and dad had dreamed,
But on the day I die, I’ll say at least I fucking tried.
That’s the only eulogy I need,
That’s the only eulogy I need.
Frank Turner, “Eulogy”

Every story has a protagonist. A leading character who the reader follows through a series of events. In most stories, you see the protagonist go through a change of some kind in response to the events that occur in the story.  As we each go through our own lives, we become our own protagonists. We tell ourselves a story about who we are, where we came from, what part we play in the events of our lives, and where we are going next.

Part of the story we tell ourselves has to do with our own character. Who are we? Some people think about this shockingly little. Others quite a bit. You probably wouldn’t be shocked to learn that I fall into the “quite a bit” crowd. And it isn’t because of I am dying. This is something that I have always done.

Several years ago, I was selected to attend a leadership seminar. Part of the class was one of those “learn more about yourself and personality” exercises. You probably know what I am talking about- you take the quiz, you get a report, and you share with the class. What I loved about this one was that it was entirely focused on identifying a person’s strengths. The idea is that everyone has their own unique strengths and perspectives.  If we could only focus on pulling those out and capitalizing on them we could make so much more of a difference than focusing only on correcting a person’s flaws. I loved the idea.

Out of some 30-40 strengths, here were my top 5 “strengths.”

1) Learner- has a great desire to learn and continuously improve. In particular, the process of learning, rather than the outcome is what excites them

2) Input- has a craving to know more. Often they like to collect and archive all kinds of information.

3) Relator- enjoys close relationships with others. They find deep satisfaction in working hard with friends to achieve a goal.

4) Intellection- characterized by intellectual activity. They are introspective and appreciate intellectual discussions.

5) Restorative- is adept at dealing with problems. They are good at figuring out what is wrong and resolving it.

I suspect that anyone reading this blog would be surprised at none of these.

Perhaps the most surprising might be the #3- Relator. However, after reading the more detailed description of this trait, it’s difficult to say that it isn’t spot on:

“Driven by your talents, you typically do your best work when you can bring your expertise to an enterprise. You prefer activities that keep you busy from start to finish. By nature, you are quite comfortable being honest about yourself with others. You harbor very few illusions about who you really are. Furthermore, you can openly acknowledge your mistakes and shortcomings. This is apt to distinguish you from most people.”

My first response to this report was. Yep, that’s me. My second response? Wow. I am really boring. Four out of five of these involve collecting, organizing and analysing information in order to learn how to do things better or solve a problem. It is what it is. That’s what nature, nurture, and 3 years of writing thesis papers as an English Lit major made me. I may be a one-trick pony, but I guess that I really excel at that one trick.

Most of my foundational personality traits are centered around a growth mindset.  Remember that post about having an internal locus of control?  This is where it comes from.

The “learner” trait, as I’ve alluded to previously, is one that I had to develop in response to the events around me. It was my escape route to a better life. From adolescence on, I’ve been driven to make myself and situations that surround me better today than yesterday, and better tomorrow than today. I can’t claim that my personal growth always moved quickly, or that it was even a straight line, but the overall trajectory was always upward.  Being raised by self-destructive people kind of forced this on me. When you have a bio-Dad, mother and brother who all clearly have issues but yet are somehow also completely blameless for everything that went wrong in their lives, you begin to turn a critical eye inward.  Otherwise you are doomed to follow the same path.

For years, I was too critical, and that voice really never went away. But as the years and decades went on, I learned how to focus not just on my weaknesses, but on my strengths as well. I started to learn that sometimes, my instincts were right. I started to trust myself more. And more than that- the older I got, the more I was able to realize that I actually had a lot to offer. That I wasn’t just a series of things that needed to be fixed. Because of where I came from. Because of who I was related to. And because of the stories I was told by some of the adults in my life about who I was at a young age.

If I hadn’t grown, I would still be scared of the world and think that I had nothing to offer it. I would still be hiding all of my thoughts and talents for fear that people would criticize and laugh at them. And I would still be dependent upon others to get by and function normally.

Most of my steps were small. What if I signed up for Speech next year and tried it out? What if I told that girl that her interpretation is wrong? What if I study hard and write thoughtful papers and make the honors program at college Freshman year? What if I get jobs that I can walk to and take out student loans to make sure I finish? And what if I wake up at 4 am to study for that huge board that I need to pass in order to get the formal authority/appointment I need for my next promotion?

The “Intellection” trait is probably the most natural of the five.  I believe that I have a natural tendency to think about things very deeply and look at them from several angles.

Input and Restorative are offshoots of the Intellection and Learner traits. They are the adaptive means by which I put all of my thinking and desire to improve into action.

My high “relater” score is definitely not something that I was born with, but rather a skill that I learned and adapted through life experience.  As a kid, I barely spoke to anyone, and this continued up through college.  For example, I have never been good at socializing or attempting to make friends. Firstly, I feared rejection. And secondly, to be honest, I was scared that I couldn’t handle one more commitment. This was all a part of my, “I am okay with not getting help- just don’t expect anything from me in return” mentality. I rationalized that it took all of the energy I had to just to keep my own head above water. Adding someone else to the equation would only force me under.

Life experiences forced me challenge that core beliefs as well. I was not sure about having kids. Could I be a good Mom? It turns out that I could, and it has nothing to do with being perfect, and everything to do with the simple act of loving. Yes, I could be a better Mom than my own and this showing love thing is SO easy and natural. Why couldn’t it have been for her? How damaged must she have been?

And then I If I could survive a full time career and 3 small children, then maybe I was capable of other things as well. I could figure out how to be a friend. I was used to friendships feeling false and temporary. Not worth investing in.

Admittedly, my closest friends today are those people that for whatever reason I simply felt comfortable being myself around. I didn’t seek out friendship, but I did learn to finally let my guard down around certain people who I judged as genuine. Years of observing others made me quite good at this. And when I did this? True friends found me. I made mistakes. I was awkward and occasionally too honest. And they somehow still wanted to get to know me. If THEY could do this for me, then I could grow and figure out how to do so in return. I am so grateful to them for teaching me by example, for the first time, how to be a friend.

My career brought further growth.  Collecting and organizing and analysing information came natural to me.  Working with other people did not.  What I found out was that working as a subject matter expert and leading small groups was actually something that I was pretty good at.  With one very big exception.  I don’t work well with difficult people.  Because I am so honest and critical of myself, I expect others to do the same.  I never expect perfection, but I do expect the type of mutual respect that allows for honest conversation. I don’t expect you to agree with me, but I do expect you to explain the rationale for your position and to listen to mine.  If I have a human need to contribute, then you do as well. And if our common goal is to be successful, not just to be right, there is no end to what can be accomplished. Unfortunately, there are many people who don’t play by those same rules. And that’s when things start to unravel.

My internal locus and growth mindset have written a story of continuous growth. However, it took a terminal diagnosis to finally wake me up and propel me into growth at warp speed. I don’t have 40 more years to finish learning and growing. I’ve now got to fit in all into whatever time I have left.

Given the character strengths listed above, the worst thing that you can do is put me in a situation where I am not allowed to contribute and then gaslight me for bringing problems to light in order to solve them.

Given the character strengths above, the worst thing that you can do is give me a terminal disease, with no clear answers as to why it happened, and with no possibility of ever fixing or solving the problem.

And so we come to where I find myself now. We come back to the emotional turmoil that is the “why” behind this blog.

I keep getting caught up in waves that want to pull me under. A trip back to the office. Curriculum night. Fresh reminders of the sharp turn into the darkness and uncertainty that my life has taken.

And here I am still trying to get better. To identify the problem (stolen expectations of a long life with my family), and possible solutions (focus on what you have today, not what’s been stolen from tomorrow).

Today was quiet. No noise to drown out today’s painful cramping and back pain. Pain that is still easily managed by by low dose pain medications, but which is unfortunately now always present without them. Aches and pains to play on my fears that this new line of chemo isn’t working, and what that might mean for the time I have left and for the number of healthy days left before that.

There is always a dance between acceptance and fear. Each takes its turn in the lead, spinning in circles around my brain.  And the longer I watch the dance, the more I realize that I need to slow it down, to give up the struggle.

My protagonist is facing her final plot twist.  How will these events change me- change my character?  These last few challenges have been trying to teach me one final lesson, and it is the most difficult thing that I’ve had to learn, because it goes against my very nature.  My life has been about an internal locus, continuous learning and solving problems.  But I can’t solve everything.  I can’t solve death.

I’ve learned how to grow.  But I’ve failed to learn how to let go and accept that some things can’t be fixed, and aren’t meant to be solved.  My final lesson is to learn how to let go and be at peace with what is.  My final lesson is to learn how to die.


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