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A child is born into a world stuffed with nearly seven billion people. How does that child understand himself within the larger context of his family, playmates, community, and humanity in general? Scholars have pondered this question for centuries. Science has poked around the human brain to discover how humans process conceptual information. Psychiatrists, psychologists, educators, and philosophers have posited a dazzling array of ideas about how we separate ourselves from others. But really, definitive answers continue to elude us. 

The mystery of human individuality is as fascinating as the complexity of how seven billion copies of the human genome collide without ever resulting in an exact replica. An infant fresh from the birth canal contains the hardware of life: bones, tissues, vessels, eyes, ears, nose, fingers and toes. But the software is minimal The instinct for survival takes over while the essence of the tiny individual begins to formulate. Life experiences, the tentacles of religion and philosophy, and cultural grooming provide a framework for each child to develop a sense of self apart from others. As we lurch toward adulthood and self-reliance, our growing individuality needs to be balanced by responsibility. I like to think of character as a bubbling stew of social responsibility containing elements of trust, reliability, honesty, empathy, respect, and cooperation. Everyone’s stew tastes slightly different because each of the ingredients has come from slightly different soil, has been cured differently, and spiced with different perspectives.

It is a well-known and oft-lamented fact that our culture places a high premium on individuality. Our movers and shakers need self-confidence to rise above the flotsam. The down side of individuality is the occasional emergence of the megalomaniac—that strong individual who assumes her own power is a gift to be used to attain a singular goal, no matter the social cost. The “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” philosophy turns a dark eye on the humanity that falls beneath those boots in the climb up the ladder. But overall, Americans and Western Europeans agree that individuality, balanced by a solid character, are tools for success.

I’ve marveled at people who were born with few privileges and little nurturing yet found within themselves the fortitude to rise above their circumstances—to become better than the sum of the gifts they were born to. I’ve despaired at the individuals I’ve encountered who were born with great gifts and into reasonably comfortable surroundings only to fall short of expectations—our expectations as well as their own expectations. Somewhere between these two extremes, most of us venture through life, learning, evolving, and grasping to become the best we can be.

The evolution of character begins early and peaks quickly as childhood experiences pile up. Most of us sort out our identities in high school and college. By the mid- to late-twenties, we think we’ve got ourselves figured out. Invariably, life happens—circumstances change and we discover that the evolution of character continues. Tending the stew, we discover, is a lifelong task. Next I will peer into my own pot to see what it started with and how it has evolved and continues to evolve.