10: Character as palimpsest


A palimpsest is a page of text that’s been wiped of its content to be reused for new writing. However, the original text may still show through as new words are written on top. This can create a synergistic effect, with the patterns of the old and new writing overlapping each other to reveal unexpected beauty and meaning. Can we think of human character the same way?

The not-so-blank slate

As children, we have much to learn and know little. Yet, there are unique and undeniable traits and abilities in each of us from the day of our birth. So, while our infant selves have a lifetime of possibility open to us, we also have some defining characteristics hidden within us. As we grow, new skills, traits, and experiences are layered on top of this bedrock, forming and informing each of us as an irreplaceable individual.

For instance, my natural reservation and contemplative disposition underlies the various paths and stories that have unfolded throughout my life. In contrast, another may be disposed to hurl themselves into things without reservation. In either case, our initial attitude lies at the foundation of the person we are to become.

“But people change”, some might say. This is true. However, even when a person changes, this change has meaning precisely insofar as the person isn’t what they were before. As we develop, who we were remains a part of who we are, albeit perhaps in a “scraped off” way.

Decide, ye scribe

Over time, memories and experiences accrue and compound with each other, shaping our character, skills, and judgement. A decision made when we were 12 may come to have great significance when juxtaposed with an experience we have at 52. Indeed, such patterns and connections form some of the strongest sinews of friendship between long-time friends.

If we think of character as a palimpsest, we see that it is built up over time from what and how we’ve lived. Our works, deeds, and decisions trace marks of meaning on our hearts, forming our character. This fact is significant for all of us, but is especially so for those who would live creatively.

Why? Because creativity is the art of intent applied to time. In other words, creativity consists in making decisions. In art, these decisions scale up to grand spiritual and philosophical ideas and down to single marks on a page.

Similarly, our life decisions scale up to pivotal events like leaving our childhood home or marriage, to small ones like what to eat for breakfast. Even these seemingly trivial decisions accumulate over time to contribute to who we are. One who eats steak and eggs each day won’t be quite the same as one who eats Reese’s Puffs instead.

From this we learn that our character is up to us to create. Each daily decision is a word upon the palimpsest of a life that may, one day, form a work of art in itself. Decide, ye fateful scribe.

Works of time

We’re born into the world one-of-a-kind, becoming ever more distinctive in our character as we grow older and are transformed by our actions and experience. Thus our character is the palimpsest upon which the story of our lives is written ever and again, each mark upon the parchment a work of time.