Living / Philosophy / Science

“Passion and Character” – The dividing lines between cultures

As we head deeper into the 21st century, the world continues to become a bigger melting pot of cultures.  The cultural boundaries which had existed from the start have quickly eroded over the past two centuries.  Economic incentives overseas, coupled with lenient immigration laws, have brought diverse cultures together.  There is an ever-increasing need for recognizing the similarities and understanding the differences between cultures.  This article tackles it in the context of the guiding principles behind the cultures.  It describes the behaviors in the light of personal qualities of passion and character.

Western individualism in contrast to Eastern collectivism

Western individualism in contrast to Eastern collectivism

The world is generally divided into Western and an Easter cultures.  Terms like the Orient and Occident have historically been used to capture the different ways of life.  Their differences have been studied at length and the most commonly acknowledged one is that of independence versus interdependence. Western cultures lay emphasis on individuality while Eastern cultures uphold collectivism.  Other comparisons have emphasized an analytical approach in the West in contrast to a holistic outlook in the East.  All such differences exist and are often behind the opposing views on important issues around the world.  The qualities of passion and character are yet another aspect of this comparison of cultures.

The West recognizes passion as the compass for the journey of life.  It promotes an unhindered realization of self with emphasis on innate potential and talents of the individual.  Wheather its passion in the kind of work one does or passion in the pursuit of partners, it looks for gratification of the senses and the mind.  This gives Western people a more vigorous dose of life and allows them to find their true interests.  Taken to the extreme, passion leads to a habit of maximizing for short-term gains at the cost of long-term outcomes.

Passion - the ability to find the your limits and interests

Passion – the ability to find the your limits and interests

Character in the East is the flip side of the coin.  It emphasizes the long-term gains and uses discipline in fighting against impulses.  Children are disciplined from the early age and are taught to live by the societal norms.  In conservative cultures it translates to curbing of sexual impulses and an overall subjugation of instincts in favor of accepted behavior.  Taken to the extreme, this character building leads to self-denial and asceticism.

Both passion and character are not without their shortcomings.  The downside of disciplining is that children’s personalities often don’t developed fully or develop slowly at best.  This is often seen amongst women in conservative cultures, who see a blossoming of their personalities post marriage.  The character building results in some degree of loss in the vigor and vitality of life.  It becomes more apparent in professional life when career choices are made more out of necessity than inner yearnings and interest.

Character - the ability to restrain impulses through discipline

Character – the ability to restrain impulses through discipline

Western culture in contrast does not lay the same emphasis on discipline and restraining impulses.  This has the benefit of children finding their unique niche and exploring life on their own.  When it comes to work, more people make careers out of their passions, than do people in the East.  The downside of this unhindered pursuit of passion is the tendency to always pursue short-term gains.  Long term advantages are often overlooked and seem tedious in comparison to quick realization of impulses.

Science also provides some parallels when it comes to maximizing for short verses long-term benefits.  The concept is adequately captured in the search of local verses global maxima.  When trying to maximize any factor (e.g. happiness or satisfaction) the local maxima search attempts to find the maximum reward in the immediate reach.  For the illustration below, this is analogous to taking the steepest track when trying to find the top of the hill.  The hill may not be the tallest in the landscape, but this strategy quickly gets up to a good height.  A global maxima search in contrast has a longer term strategy.  It can follow paths that are less steep or even those which take it down the hill, in the hope of finding higher ground beyond the horizon.  Both these strategies have the same goal of reaching higher ground but their method of going about it is different.

Climbing a Hill - Passion is about finding the local maxima whereas character entails the hope of a higher hill beyond the horizon

Climbing a Hill – Passion is about finding the local maxima whereas character entails the hope of a higher hill beyond the horizon

In the hill climbing analogy, passion is comparable to local maxima search.  If the criterion of satisfaction is represented by height of the hill, then passion guarantees a quick climb to a high satisfaction level.  It might not find the tallest hill in the terrain, but it gives decent results and guarantees some degree of satisfaction.  Character building on the other hand is similar to the global maxima search.  It encourages curbing the impulse of climbing in the hope of finding taller hills in the long run.  Sometimes this strategy succeeds and results in a richer life experience.  At other times the excessive curbing passion weakens the will to search and eventually gives worse results.  In the bigger picture of things, both methods are geared towards the same goal, of reaching a higher levels of satisfaction and happiness in life.

Related Readings:
[The Disciplined Pursuit of Less]

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