Rationalism & My Character Gap

“Nothing that we despise in other men is inherently absent from ourselves. We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or don't do, and more in light of what they suffer.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

For those who know me personally, yes, I am aware of the antithetical nature of my opening a blog post with a quote from a famous Protestant martyr. Nevertheless, one of the most essential paradoxes I've learned to embrace in my life is that truth carries a foundational constant as immutable as anything might be found to be. This post will likely seem to be wallowing in self-analysis and assessment, and you'll have to forgive that indulgence.

I am bipolar type 2, with rapid cycling. In layman's terms, I am more depressed than manic, but I oscillate swiftly between the two. This blog post is more about laying out (in writing) the tools I've both deliberately and subconsciously built for myself daily over my life. If you suffer from a mental illness, go see a therapist and get on medication if you are not. It is the single greatest tool we have to maintain our mental health.

However learning what daily tools I can use has helped me much, and I often find significant value in "talking through them" in writing, and as such, this blog post stands as part of that.

Some of the great equalizers in my lifelong battle against my brain have been philosophy, rationalism, and religion. While I enjoy (and would say I strive to emulate) the Stoic school of philosophy, I do believe that oftentimes modern applications of stoicism tend to inherently center the philosophy against core concepts I consider important to its holistic practice.

Just like everyone's brain chemistry is unique, so is everyone's approach to ethics, virtues, and belief. There's a deep conflict within me between faith, rationalism, virtue, and ethics, one that manifests itself in the character gap. At times they align themselves, and at other instances, they find themselves at cross purposes.


rationalism: the belief or principle that actions and opinions should be based on reason rather than on emotion or religion.
― The Cambridge Dictionary

Though rationalism carries some significant religious connotations, I find the philosophical definition more relevant to my life on a day-to-day basis (very few religions or religious sorts are purely rationalist, at least so my experience would seem).

Rationalism has moved its goalposts a bit over history in part, due to the marriage and divorce of religion and philosophy in Western culture. But if we were to simplify it to practice daily, I would (if pressed) summarize as thus:

  1. My actions are oriented on deductive intellect and analysis.
  2. My opinions are centered on evidence and analysis.
  3. I do my best to avoid allowing emotion and religion to dictate how I act.

These are theoretical goals, rather than hard and fast accomplishments. I know my emotions sometimes rule me (as much as I wish they didn't, but bipolar is a hard bronco to break). Now, no one can truly excise emotion from themselves. Nor can many of us who grew up in heavily-religious communities or families ever truly remove those elements of ourselves. They are too mixed into our foundation to be disregarded wholesale.

But rationalism (and by extension stoicism) has a strong purchase and hold on me, as it allows me the tools to harness, understand, and use my emotions in beneficial ways. They are not about suppressing, removing, or eliminating emotion or faith, but about learning healthy ways to know when to engage with them, or when they are best left in the passenger seat (rather than the driver).

Centering myself on reason, virtues, and being the best at being a human being that I can be allows me to stand against the harsh emotional winds I contain.

Character Gap

"Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)"
― Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 51.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, it's a sideways continuation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's idea (stated above). The character gap posits that our self-perception of our virtue, faith, and ethics falls short of what we practice. Espoused by Christian B. Miller (in his book, the titular The Character Gap), Miller posits that we all sit on a spectrum of good and evil, but we tend to overlook our place in that spectrum and how our perception of our actions and our place on that spectrum are often unaligned.

I think most reasonable people understand that no one person is purely good or purely evil and in that sense, Miller's statements are as old as human culture itself. In many ways, the Character Gap is an existing concept, simplified to a more friendly definition. However, when coupled with the orientation of "we, ourselves, are blind to our character gaps." I expend effort every day reviewing my actions in the context of where I failed my virtues and ethics, and attempting to acknowledge my character gap, pick myself up, and move forward. This is not to say I am self-flagellating (though my bipolar disorder does lend itself to that too frequently). I don't believe self-assessment is inherently wallowing. I want to be the best iteration of what I can be tomorrow and to do so, I have to analyze where I fell short of that goal today and then attempt to improve.

As Miller talks about, not every failure of our character is found solely in ourselves. Environment, circumstances, the individuals or entities involved. These all contribute to wedging open our character gap as we make thousands of decisions daily. As we understand our character gap (and others), we can more accurate interact with, support, and enable those around us to be the most successful versions of themselves.

Where I often miss the mark in watching the character gap, is forgetting that the character gap can apply to entities that are human-like, such as communities, organizations, businesses, or similar bodies that are composed of individuals. In some cases (mine, as a small business where I handle 90% of the tasks), the character gap is more related to me than my business. There is no one else to bridge or wedge the character gap and it falls directly aligned with me.

Being able to stand back and see the character gap (even in hindsight) has proven helpful for me. It allows me to extend a bit of forgiveness and grace to myself,

The Daily Goals

Daily, I've created myself a hierarchy of goals. The button goals flow up into the top one and I often try to analyze my interactions and actions through those goals. The ultimate goal is #1, but ideally, they form a sort of pyramid of aspirations.

  1. Be the best human being I can be.
  2. Be the best family member I can be.
  3. Be the best community member I can be.
  4. Be the best friend I can be.
  5. Be the best employer/business I can be.
  6. Be the best game designer I can be.
  7. Be the best me I can be.

The word "best" does quite a lot of heavy lifting there. To me, "best" means: "of the highest quality". It means fulfilling the following conditions:

  1. Striving that all my actions meet my code of ethics (Kant's virtue).
  2. Striving that all my actions are as considered and good as possible (in the Aristotelian sense of meeting both the best course and most direct course of applied virtue).
  3. Strive that all my actions are considered against rationality first, with emotion second, and faith following (Descartes's definition of virtue).
  4. Ensuring my actions enable me to learn and do better tomorrow than I did today.

That's three different (and at times conflicting) definitions of virtue. No surprise I find such joy in attempting to untangle who I am. There is no greater challenge than truly understanding oneself. At least putting this all down on digital paper allowed me to unpack a bit more of it!

Suggested Reading:

  1. The Character Gap by Christian B. Miller
  2. Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

You'll only receive email when they publish something new.

More from Alan Bahr
All posts