Character – How does change happen?

There may be individuals with a radically reformed character. Several theories offer reasons why this may be possible.

After having been a bad person, is it later possible to become a much better individual? To be a genuinely reformed character? To develop personal virtues which are the opposites of previous reprehensible conduct?

Furthermore, is it possible to replace a life of crime with honest living? Swap an erotic interest in children for normal sexual desire? Convert a streak of violence to self-control? Or change being consumed by self-hatred into compassion for and acceptance of oneself?

Is radical transformation of character really possible? And if so how might one suppose this can happen?

characterCharacter of Oskar Groening

The so-called ‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz’, Oskar Groening played his part in a monstrous crime against humanity. As an enthusiastic young fascist who regarded the Jews as subhuman, he had willingly made an oath of loyalty to the fanatical Waffen-SS. Most noteworthy, a junior NCO, his secret role was to count out the money the Nazis stole from the Jews and engage in a sham bureaucratic process sorting out their luggage. This deceived the prisoners arriving at the death camp into believing one day their property would be returned, so as to keep them calm and ready to accept orders not knowing their real fate.

Later in life he revealed that during the war he had seen the Jews as the enemy on the home front and saying “we exterminated nothing but enemies”. However, he volunteered his complicity in one of the greatest crimes in history, even knowing this honesty about his ‘former self’ meant his trial and, if convicted, his probable death in jail. With his testimony, he challenges those who deny the Holocaust took place. “I saw the gas chambers. I saw the crematoria. I saw the open fires. I would like you to believe these atrocities happened“.

Is this an example of a radical change of character?

characterCharacter of Muhammadu Buhari

Another possible example is that of former dictator Muhammadu Buhari who ruled Nigeria in the mid-1980’s. He sent soldiers to the streets with whips. Around 500 politicians, officials and businessmen were imprisoned in his campaign against waste and corruption. The regime put critics – including the Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti – behind bars. Buhari passed laws allowing indefinite detention without trial. He imposed a decree to restrict press freedom. This put two journalists into jail. The execution of three young men, led to international outcry. The war against indiscipline was carried to “sadistic levels, glorying in the humiliation of a people,” wrote the Nobel laureate for literature Wole Soyinka.

However, later in life Buhari persuaded Nigerians he reformed his character and began to respect civil liberties. Is he really a born-again democrat who will never return to his autocratic ways and human rights abuses? There is reason to think so. He now wants to manage the future for the better by beating corruption and challenging the Islamist militants. Therefore, he has contested the presidential election three times and lost, and ended up in court perhaps thus showing his commitment to the rule of law.

Theories of character change

So how can anyone radically change? I believe the various theories have both an element of truth and error in them. Here are some of the main ones on offer.

  1. Everyone is basically good. We just need the right social environment, (e.g. available employment, accessible health care, satisfactory housing, educational opportunity, good family upbringing, and so on) to change our character for the better.
  2. There is a restorative force in nature. We need techniques of healing which can harness this.
  3. There is a deeper reality beyond us (consisting of benevolence, compassion, justice, joy, peace etc.). We need an appropriate form of personal therapy or spiritual practice to learn to connect with this.
  4. There is a higher universal consciousness beyond that of the perspective  of individual awareness. It is possible to discover the latter through practising control over body and mind.
  5. There is a Divine Being with power to free us from ignorance, sorrow and evil. We need to devote ourselves to and believe in this.
  6. Each person has an inner freedom of decision together with a higher perception of what is true and good. The freedom obliges one to make ethical choices in line with the perception.

Swedenborg and character change

The religious theories of character change often involve the idea of a transforming divine power. One example is the spiritual philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg. This states there is a Divine Being who consists of pure love and wisdom from which good things flow into the world e.g. human insight, virtue, hope, understanding, and contentment. Most of all, this creative force, he maintains, is the power that enables character improvement.

Hence, he claims your character doesn’t change until you acknowledge this inflow from beyond yourself. And it can only start to happen as one practises honest self-examination of daily life. This means neither kidding yourself about your failings or  punishing yourself for them. In other words, you can hope the Source of life will gradually change you. But this requires your co-operation in line with what you are learning about yourself.

Copyright 2015 Stephen Russell-Lacy

Author Heart, Head & Hands (

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