Character-Defining Moments

women hugging

By Anna Yusim, MD
Life can be viewed as moments of meaning connected by the passage of time.  Moments of meaning are rare and distinct events that unfold in our lives, often without our anticipation, that give us glimpses into important truths about ourselves and those near and dear to us.  Such moments can expose our vulnerabilities, reveal our strengths, unveil our deepest convictions or give our life direction, both personally and professionally.  When these moments are shared with others, the relationship between two people becomes forever transformed by what has been revealed in this moment of unfolding or co-creation.  We can think of these revelations as character-defining moments, or unexpected glimpses into the soul of another.  

“Are We Loved?” And Other Musings of the Undefended Self

Bob knew the exact moment his 10-year marriage to Kim was over. With three healthy children and two busy careers, Bob and Kim essentially grew up together, getting married in Alabama as high school sweethearts at the age of 19.  They struggled financially for years, but everything changed for them that very month when Bob’s insurance company went public.  Overnight, they went from rags to riches. 

To celebrate, Bob told Kim he would like to buy her a beautiful new Cartier wedding band, something he could not afford when they first got married.  Kim, in response, said, “no, thank you.” For Bob, Kim’s response was much more than a simple expression of her preference.  A part of Bob had been pondering the question over the last few years, “is my marriage going to last?”  At that precise moment, he knew the answer was no.  What made this single moment so pivotal?  

To Bob, offering to buy Kim a new wedding band symbolized three things.  First, it symbolized the possibility of renewed commitment to each other, particularly because they had been growing apart.  Second, it represented Kim’s acknowledgment of (and gratitude for) how hard Bob worked to bring their family to this place financially.  And third, it symbolized Kim allowing herself to be in the traditionally receptive, feminine role and Bob to be in the giving, masculine role.  Kim’s “no, thank you,” crystallized into a single moment what Bob had been feeling from Kim for years but had been unable to articulate: a rejection of their marriage, his hard work, and his masculinity.  While the reasons behind Kim’s “no, thank you,” can certainly be contested, Bob’s response gives us insight into his inner world and explains why that very moment was transformative.  

The old adage advises that we should judge people by their actions rather than their words.  Character-defining moments like the one above reveal somebody’s values and core essence with more clarity than words.  When graced with unforeseen “a-ha” moments of this nature, pivotal unconscious and existential themes central to a person’s life are brought into conscious awareness.  Such moments have deep emotional valence precisely because they touch on themes of love and attachment, many originating from early childhood, that are essential to our identity and integrity as human beings: Are we loved? Are we lovable? Will we be heard and understood? Will we be taken care of, or will we be abandoned?    

Glimpses into Each Other’s Soul

In the middle of Alison and Thomas’ second date, Alison’s friend Crystal called her in tears – she had just broken up with her boyfriend of three years.  Thomas, instead of feeling offended that Alison picked up her phone during their date, became visibly concerned about Alison’s friend and encouraged Alison to go and take care of her. Picking up the phone in the middle of a date was not characteristic of Alison.  In fact, in retrospect, she wasn’t even sure why she chose to pick up that very phone call.  But it was this co-occurrence of events – Crystal’s breakup, the phone call, Thomas’ empathic response (and subsequent follow-up text about it that evening) – that created an important character-defining moment for Alison and Thomas.  

Throughout the unfolding events, Alison learned that Thomas understood and valued her friendships, was sensitive to the feelings of others, and didn’t lose his cool, get offended or take things personally when events didn’t go exactly as planned.  At the same time, Thomas had his own revelation in response to what he was experiencing.  He witnessed Alison’s kind and caring nature and saw that she too kept cool in times of stress. Moreover, Thomas experienced Alison’s gratitude for his being able to “go with the flow,” a role in which Thomas felt comfortable as the fourth of seven children in his family.  Used to being “the rock” for his friends and family, he enjoyed supporting Alison in doing what was important for her.  What transpired that day between Alison and Thomas was not monumental or out of the ordinary.  On the contrary, it was the subtleties of this mundane experience that gave them both a glimpse into each other’s soul. It was on that day, in the presence of this unanticipated series of events that Alison and Thomas both decided that they would make a good couple. 

Character-defining moments divulge information to both the subject and witness through how both people respond to the moment that has been co-created.  A deep revelation or understanding between two people may occur, which facilitates person-to-person connection.  An unanticipated opening arises (i.e., Alison’s friend calls her crying) and both Alison and Thomas have the freedom of whether and how to engage or disengage.  They can act with empathy and compassion.  They can act with anger and self-interest.  Or they can choose not to act at all.  After all, inaction is also a form of action.

The unfolding moment allows pivotal unconscious themes to be brought into conscious awareness, thereby crystallizing Alison and Thomas’ feelings towards each and facilitating a deep state of knowing.  Alison’s unconscious musings may have been something like, “Can this man truly love me?  Can he support me?  Will be threatened by my independence and autonomy?  Or can he actually love this part of me that my ex-boyfriends have rejected?” In that sublime moment, she sensed that indeed Thomas had looked deep into her soul and liked what he saw.  She felt that he had the strength, patience, and courage to truly support her.  In turn, she began to feel safe with Thomas and opened to the possibility of a relationship with him.  

How We Know What We Know

There are some things in life we can only learn and assimilate slowly over time. Other things can be known in a lightning fast and instantaneous manner.  In character-defining moments, we obtain a great deal of important information, knowledge, and data fast.  Such moments can hit us as flashes of insight, pangs of strong affect, or an embodied knowing we can neither comprehend nor explain. 

The acquisition of character-related knowledge is analogous to the two competing theories of evolution: gradualism vs. punctuated equilibrium.  Gradualism is the idea that large evolutionary changes are the culmination of very small genetic changes that build up over time.  In contrast, punctuated equilibrium asserts that changes occur over a relatively short amount of time "punctuating" the long periods of stability.  Here’s what the two theories look like:


Gradualism vs. Punctuated Equilibrium

Gradualism vs. Punctuated Equilibrium

Likewise, while much of the knowledge we acquire in relationships can indeed occur through a process akin to gradualism (slowly and steadily as we learn more about a person over time), character-defining moments in relationships are precisely those points of “punctuation” that can move a relationship into a new stage of its evolution.  

William James, the influential philosopher and psychologist from the late 1800s, identified two primary modes of thinking: associations and true reasoning. These can be thought of as snap judgments vs. analysis, or instinct vs. logic. Snap judgments or instincts are mostly unconscious, effortless and lightning fast.  It’s when you know something without really knowing why.  In contrast, analysis or logic involves consciously thinking things through and reasoning things out, like when we solve a math problem or write an essay. This mode of thinking is slower, effortful and deliberate.  Character-defining moments fit into the instinct or snap judgments category.  We are able to sum up a situation quickly, knowing something of great importance often without a deeper level of understanding of how or why we know what we know.  

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, an experimental psychologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002, describes how we often think we are making logical, rational decisions (the deliberate, slow-thinking, analytical system) when in fact we are making instinctual, irrational decisions (the fast, emotionally laden, ingrained system).  Because we live in a world of deep uncertainty, relying exclusively on logic as our guide may disadvantage us in many situations.  So we’ve evolved a much faster-thinking system of using instinct, associations, gut feelings and snap judgments.  However, we don’t like to think of ourselves as illogical or irrational beings.  To solve this dilemma, we create logical explanations to retrospectively rationalize our instinctual decisions to our logical minds.

The moments of meaning described above occurred via an instantaneous process.  Each person felt moved and touched by something they experienced in the shared space between themselves and another.  But it was only in the retrospective meaning-making process that each person understood the precise unconscious themes that had been brought into conscious awareness.  Then everything began to make logical sense.  By distilling down their raw emotional response into language and logic, each person retrospectively constructed their respective narrative of meaning.  This meaning-making process is central to how we live our lives and navigate our worlds.

As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist in Manhattan, I sit with my patients hour after hour, day after day, engaging in the sometimes effortless, sometimes laborious process of meaning-making.  Helping patients create their life narratives is a central part of psychotherapy.  For meaning-making to be optimally effective, a strong therapeutic alliance between patient and therapist is essential.  As renowned psychiatrist and existential therapist Irvin Yalom writes in his book, Love’s Executioner, “It’s the relationship that heals.”  Like the acquisition of knowledge in relationships, personal growth in therapy can either proceed gradually (slowly and linearly) or in punctuated fashion (transformational moments spurring accelerated growth).  The operative question then becomes, how can therapists create the conditions for transformational moments to occur for their patients?  Research has shown that transformational moments occur at the interface of logic and emotion.  Insight alone, no matter how brilliant, rarely leads to profound and sustainable behavioral change in a patient if it is not accompanied by some level of emotional understanding.  The patient has to embody the insight, experience the emotion, localize it in their body, and/or feel it in their bones.  In this way, transformative moments in therapy are akin to character-defining moments and in close relationships.  Whether in therapy or in a relationship, no experience is as transformational as falling in love.  

Love at First Sight

Doug remembers the exact moment he first fell in love with Patricia.  They were on an oncology rotation together in medical school.  Patricia’s patient had just received the results of a bone MRI scan showing that he had cancer.  When sharing the tragic news with her patient, Patricia’s eyes teared up.  At that exact moment, the lights in the room began to flicker.  To Doug, watching Patricia cry in empathy with her patient revealed to him the depth of Patricia’s sensitivity and compassion.  Unexpectedly bearing witness to Patricia’s vulnerability touched Doug deeply, giving him a glimpse into Patricia’s soul.  The oddly-timed flickering lights only heightened Doug’s experience of this moment’s profundity.  “What an odd yet meaningful coincidence,” he thought.

Doug’s character-defining moment with Patricia crystallized for Doug a truth about himself that he had not yet consciously acknowledged.  He, like all of us, was yearning to be seen, heard and understood in his totality by another human being.  Without consciously acknowledging it at the time, he read Patricia’s tears to mean: “if she can show such caring and compassion for a patient she barely knows, then maybe she can truly love me too.”  

An essential feature of character-defining moments is their inherent unpredictability.  We are rarely prepared for them when they occur, which is what gives them their authentic quality.  The spontaneity is essential because it shows the self, vulnerable and undefended, like tears appearing in Patricia’s eyes.  Because there is no preparation or interference from defense mechanisms, these moments are imbued with a certain purity or grace that invites confidence in the information gleaned.  

While character-defining moments are often spontaneous, there are also times in which people deliberately create character-defining moments by testing each other, provoking others, pushing someone or giving ultimatums (“if you don’t propose to me by Christmas, I will leave you”).  Setting boundaries with others may be a necessary part of negotiating certain relationships and ensuring that one is not being undervalued or disrespected.  However, because these moments come about through somebody’s deliberate creation or coercion, they lack the purity and sense of grace that comes when such moments are spontaneous.  If you’d like to deliberately create some character-defining moments with the people you’re considering loving, I recommend referring to this Talmudic proverb: “A person’s character is discerned in three ways: his ‘cup’ [how he behaves when drunk], his ‘wallet’ [how he behaves in money matters] and his anger [how he behaves when he’s angry].” [Eruvin 65a]

Flickering Lights and Other Synchronicities

Returning back to Doug’s character-defining moment with Alison, what should we make of the flickering lights?  For Doug, the flickering lights occurring alongside this important emotional moment made the experience all the more poignant.  The meaning he ascribed to the flickering lights was that God or the Universe was somehow guiding him to recognize the importance of the moment that transpired between Patricia and her patient.  It was like God was saying to him, “this moment is meaningful; this woman is special; take note!”  “

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung termed occurrences of this nature synchronicities.  Two seemingly unconnected events (i.e., Patricia’s tearing up and the flickering lights) take on particular meaning for an individual experiencing them (i.e., God is trying to tell me that this woman is very special!).  Such moments can sometimes be seen as “signs from above,” imbued with a magical meaning or sense of divine guidance, often leading to some sort of breakthrough or revelation.  

A skeptic would argue that the lights flickering was merely a coincidence, with no inherent meaning aside from that ascribed to them by Doug himself. In his search for meaning, Doug created a “magical” message of a meaning by combining a series of random events.  Carl Jung would say that what made this a synchronicity was not the co-occurrence of these two events, but precisely the subjective meaning ascribed to this co-occurrence by Doug.  As with any character-defining moment or synchronicity, it is not the objective events themselves, but how we interpret them that matters.  In this way, character-defining moments and synchronicities require our active participation. They are not something we just passively watch and by which we remain unaffected. We co-create the meaning and relevance we imbue to what could otherwise be considered a random series of events.

In his book Synchronicity, Carl Jung describes a meaningful coincidence that occurred between him and one of his patients that forever transformed their relationship and the treatment.  A female patient had stopped making progress in her treatment and, as Jung described, was employing a psychological defense mechanism called intellectualization, whereby she was blocking her own progress with a wall of logic.  In one of their sessions, she was describing to Jung a dream she had about a golden scarab beetle.  At that same moment, a gold-green scarab appeared outside of Jung’s window.  He opened the window, caught the insect in midair, and presented it to his patient, saying, “Here is your scarab.”  This beautifully illogical moment resulted in an unexpected breakthrough in this woman’s therapy with Jung.

The skeptic would once again chime in to say that the magical message of meaning was constructed exclusively by Jung and his patient.  The beetle’s relatives were surely arriving at windows throughout the neighborhood without setting off emotional breakthroughs in anybody else.  Jung would respond that the joint meaning-making process was precisely what made this co-occurrence of random events so meaningful and relevant.  In essence, the events are not meaningful in and of themselves; we make them so.

As with any character defining moment, a synchronicity involving more than one person can be mutually shared by both people in similar and singularly unique ways.  For Jung to be hearing a patient’s dream of a golden scarab at the same time that a golden scarab flies by his office window was an externalized reflection of an important process that was happening inside of him.  For the patient to be discussing her scarab dream, only to have that very scarab handed to her by her therapist in real time was undoubtedly meaningful and transformative.  In this way, synchronicities have the potential to transform us, awaken us and alter us from within. Rich in meaning, a synchronistic event can affect and deepen our state of awareness, perception, and connection. The meaning-making process inherent in synchronicity underlies the realization that we are playing an active, participatory, and hence, co-creative role in the unfolding of our lives.

The mysteries of synchronicity, particularly as they pertain to character-defining moments, will often lead us to view the world we live in a little differently.  We have the choice of whether to see all of these life experiences as random coincidences or as expressions of what Carl Jung called the unus mundus, which is Latin for “the one world,” a grand overarching order in the Universe, or the profound interconnectedness of all things.  As seasoned meaning-makers in the journey of life, the final meaning is always up to us.


Anna Yusim, MD is a Manhattan psychiatrist and author of Fulfilled: How the Science of Spirituality Can Help You Live a Happier, More Meaningful Life. Join her for a Copper Beech retreat on Cultivating Authenticity this Sept. 14-16, 2018.


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