The getting of wisdom is a three-stage process, according to many Buddhists: “Before my Zen training I thought that rivers were rivers. When I advanced in the training I came to see that rivers were not rivers. Now that I have realised enlightenment, I see that rivers are rivers.” This is a classic picture of how insight develops which is repeated in many wisdom traditions.
For years my friends and I were critical of any notion which claimed that "we should be good mainly because of the consequences." There were various reasons we thought this was wrong. The central one was our conviction that you should be good simply because goodness (along with truth) is the highest value. It is the most profound value that we live, and should not be subordinated to others, such as prudence.
Another reason we were critical of such consequentialism, was our rejection of the idea that, if you are a good person, then, by some law good things will happen to you. Because the corollary of this is that, if bad things happen to you, then that is your fault. Any decent person can see the problem with such an attitude. Life can cut you off at the knees for no good reason. Bad things happen to good people, and it is wrong (it is terrible) to blame them for that. By way of rejecting this idea, my friends and I would insist that there are no fruits of character, that instead it is a matter of chance whether your good actions bring good or bad consequences. This is to see that rivers are not rivers. It is to rise to the second stage, beyond the foolishness of the first.
As I continue to experience life and reflect on it, I have come to reject that second stage as well. To put the matter one way, people often believe myths which are false at a crude level, but which at a deeper level express profound truths. Often these truths have not been clearly articulated at a rational level. For example a myth might speak of humans as divided by godly forces. Then a dramatist like Shakespeare raises that insight to a higher level of abstraction, picturing people as confused and divided against themselves. Then a psychologist like Freud lifts it into the empirical concepts of science, as a notion of the unconscious. And neuroscience takes it further again. And so it is that the crude error that my friends and I rejected, prefigures a more profound truth that we did not clearly see.
To illustrate this, consider one of the most destructive things that people can do in ordinary life to one another: betrayal. If a person is betrayed by somebody they love, betrayed deeply enough, then their life is changed and they may never be the same again. But neither will be the person who betrayed them. One way to think of this is according to the existentialist insight that you are the sum of your actions, that you create who you are through what you do. You cannot undo what you have done: you have been a traitor at some point, even if you do not continue to do so. (You can take responsibility for your past, and change who you are, which can shift the meaning of what you have done - your remorse may have a healing effect on your victim, and a transformative affect on you - but that is a different matter.) This is a fine way of thinking about these things, but it does not get at the deeper insight contained in the notion that all actions have consequences.
Another way of thinking about this is to say that, not only is there a physical reality which we must all contend with whether we like it or not - indeed whether we admit it or not - but that we also all exist in a human reality, whether we admit it or not. We are forever finding ourselves confronted by the complex and deep reality of what it is to be ourselves, to be human. Confronted from within as much as without. Subjectivity is nowhere near as free as we sometimes pretend, as anybody who has suffered knows. And it is here, as we make mistakes and learn, that we discover that all our actions have consequences. We resonate with all that we have done. We resonate in tune with our particular orientation to being, to the universe, to others.
One of the most profound explorations of this idea is found in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The protagonist Raskolnikov tries to live out his nihilism, his denial of values, to be "authentic" in some degenerate existential sense. And so he murders a horrible old woman. If there is no such thing as human reality, include inward reality at the level of subjective experience, then perhaps we can merely narrate ourselves as suits us. I can decide that I feel fine about murder. We all hear people go on and on about how everybody just sees things differently and that's all there is to it. Except that Raskolnikov finds this is not so. He becomes distraught to the point of confessional delirium. His action will not leave him alone. His experience reminds me of Freud’s observation that “When I set myself the task of bringing to light what human beings keep hidden within, I thought the task was a harder one than it really is. He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore." Raskolnikov the arrogant young intellectual thought that he knew everything, but he was blind to the basics of his own being, to the value of life, to the human realities in which he is situated, the experiential or subjective realities which as a human being, with a human nature, he cannot escape.
This situation is on repeat in every person. When we perform some action, it resonates through material space, but also it has effects and consequences in our psychological and experiential world. The subjective world is the domain of experience, and is not relativistic, rather it is exists and is shaped by a complex, profound web of relationships and interconnections. The psychological world is a further structure of such perception and experience. It is also at these levels, and not only at the physical, that you can try to stretch reality, but because it is real it has its laws and will only stretch so far before it snaps back at you! This is why the ancient Greek tragedians spoke of "hubris."
Like any reality, if you disregard it, you will suffer. You will discover that rocks are hard. And that conscience is painful. Or (if you keep pushing) that the drowning of conscience is a kind of death within. Or, if you go even further, that such a murder of your inward life results in a kind of madness. And at that point you can no longer see the cause of your affliction - or even that you are afflicted - so much have you blinded yourself to what you have brought upon yourself. Hence the self-righteous narcissist, who never sees the truth, and seems to walk away unscathed - but do they ever really live, do they ever know true peace and contentment (no they do not), do they ever really know genuine love? The bitter fruits of character indeed.
There are many reasons why people suffer. Many who suffer are innocent. But you have to look carefully and ask yourself some hard questions. Many a melancholic, fearful, or resentful person is largely, or partly, living out the fruits of their character, the consequences of their actions or mode of being in the world. These consequences are, at their deepest, immediate. Your inward life changes when you betray somebody, or betray life, turning your back on goodness or truth. Conversely, a life lived in accordance with reality is not only a life that is likely to work well, it is also a state where joy and hope and courage exist. Other people are real. Deep values exist. It is okay to to die in the end, it was all worth it. The world becomes a place that meets you as an opportunity rather than simply as a hindrance, at least enough of the time. Your experience life very differently.
To live in accordance with reality takes sacrifice, of course, and so a preparedness to let go, and sometimes to suffer, potentially deeply - though I will reflect on that another day - but the rewards are worth it if you have ordered your soul (your psyche) well enough so that you can experience them. Then you will see that rivers are rivers, that material existence fits your hands, that life can work, and that maybe you can be deeply happy and loved. That you can be a force for good in the lives of others. Instead of melancholia, joy; instead of fear, courage and hope; instead of resentment, gratitude and the strength of becoming your true self, able to look life, others, and yourself, in the eye. The best of fruits.