How Important is Character?
“The best index to a person’s character is how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and how he treats people who can’t fight back.” – Abigail Van Buren (Author of the Best of Dear Abby)
I have known for some time that one of my core values is character. It has been one of those things that I just ‘knew,’ but didn’t necessarily know why. As we stand on the precipice of electing a president and Congress, I thought it might be of value, at least for me, to explore the topic of character and see what emerged.
Part of what has spurred this on is that I have had a few conversations with friends and acquaintances about the presidential candidates. Seventy percent of those favoring Trump (10 conversations) do so because of his policies not his person. One quote was, “He’s an awful human being, but I’ve done well under his tax policies.” Many for Biden (6 out of 7) do so because of his character, at least compared to Trump’s. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. This exploration of character is much broader than American politics.
Do your best and be well…
While my journey to learning about character started with my parents, I want to insert a resource that will provide context for our discussion. A few years back I became aware of the Josephson Institute of Ethics, their Six Pillars of Character, and their trademark of CHARACTER COUNTS! I was impressed by the breadth and depth of what they had emerged in the Six Pillars. It gave me a framework for all I had learned about character. Here are the Six Pillars.
Trustworthiness – be honest; don’t deceive, cheat or steal; be reliable – do what you say you’ll do; have the courage to do the right thing; build a good reputation; be loyal – stand by your family, friends and country.
Respect – treat others with respect; follow the Golden rule; be tolerant of differences; use good manners, not bad language; be considerate of the feelings of others; don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; deal peacefully with anger, insults and disagreements.
Responsibility – do what you are supposed to do; persevere: keep on trying; always do your best; use self-control; be self-disciplined; think before you act – consider the consequences; be accountable for your choices.
Fairness – play b the rules; take turns and share; be open-minded; listen to others; don’t take advantage of others; don’t blame others carelessly.
Caring – be kind; be compassionate and show you care; express gratitude; forgive others; help people in need.
Citizenship – do your share to make your school and community better; cooperate; get involved in community affairs; stay informed; vote; be a good neighbor; obey laws and rules; respect authority; protect the environment.
My sense is that the ‘normal’ way we learn about character initially comes from those who raise us. For many, that would be our parents. Others had significant roles played by their grandparents, aunts, uncles, god parents, etc. For me, the early lessons about character were from my mother and father. These are the lessons that you first observe. How do they treat you? How do they treat other people? Are they honest? What do they value about people? Do they do what is right?
I was blessed with wonderful parents. They were great examples of how to live. The following are some of what they taught me. I spent awhile reflecting on what they taught me by action or word. I wrote them down and then went back to see which of the Six Pillars each lesson related to most. I did the same thing for other ‘teachers’ along the way – those who were my official teachers, mentors, bosses and friends.
From my parents.
- Honor God.
- Always treat others with respect. You are not any better than they are. Respect
- Tell the truth regardless of the consequences. Trustworthy
- Have respect for what you own. Take care of it. Respect
- Do what is right. Trustworthy
- Be kind to everyone, even those that may not be kind to you. Caring
- Be polite – have good manners. Show gratitude for those that do things for you. Respect
- Help others that are not able to help themselves. Caring
- Work hard. Responsibility
- Do your best work, even when you aren’t being watched. Responsibility
- Be a good listener. Seek to understand what someone is trying to tell you. Respect
- Keep your promises. Trustworthiness
- Do what you are supposed to do. Don’t brag. Responsibility
- Play by the rules. Be fair. Fairness
- Remember that you are part of a community, a city, a state, a country, a world. Be a good citizen. Citizenship
- Honor those who serve/have served in the military. Respect
- Be charitable. Caring
- Have empathy for others; show compassion. Respect
Several of my teachers reinforced lessons and messages from my parents. Many added their own ‘character’ messages.
- You represent your family. Make sure your actions always reflect well on them. Respect
- Always try your best. Responsibility
- Learn to work hard. It will pay off. Responsibility
- Do your own work. Don’t cheat off of someone else. You are just cheating yourself. Respect
As I grew, I began to learn what it meant to belong – to sports teams, to choir; later – various volunteer organizations, church, civic, trade associations.
- Show up. Be reliable. Responsibility
- Be prepared. Take care of getting yourself in shape to do your best. Responsibility
- Give it your best effort. Responsibility
- Have humility. Respect
There were mentors, bosses, and friends along the way who reinforced and often demonstrated what it meant to ‘be a person of good character.’ The later lessons included managing my Physical, Intellectual, Emotional Spiritual, and Social energy centers; self-care – to love myself well enough to want to bring the best version of me to the world as often as I possibly can.
Reflecting on my character lessons and using the Six Pillars as a standard, I am struck by the uneven nature of growing my character – some pieces came quickly, others did not. Is that true for all of us? I’m not sure, but I know it took me awhile to develop courage and discipline. The most striking lesson is understanding that choosing what is ‘right’ is often not popular nor easy. Early, some of my behaviors were done to please my parents. Eventually, I had to decide who I wanted to become – what I wanted to be my reputation? Would people experience me as someone who was trustworthy and respectful? Would they see me as responsible; someone who was fair, someone who was caring and a good citizen? It depends. It depends at what moment in time they may have observed or had knowledge of my actions. Along the way, there would be times that I wasn’t very proud of my actions. I embarrassed myself and my family. Yet, one of the key components of this journey was grace, a ‘mulligan’ in life. What would you like to do different the next time? What will it take for you to behave that way? Often, it was courage.
With all the initial ‘lessons’ from my family, it became critical that I answered, for myself, what I wanted my ‘character’ to reveal? While I likely have not strayed too far from someone my mother and father would be proud of, it was as important, if not more important, that I be ‘comfortable in my own skin.’ It has been a long journey, but I believe that the journey of the self is a long journey, with many ‘do overs’ and moments of disappointment, intertwined with those moments that went well.
It is most helpful if the habits we build during our journey are ‘automatic’ in a positive way – we don’t have to think about what we should do; our habits have been honed over time, they reflect and been reinforced by being a person of high moral character.
Why is ‘character’ important to me. I believe it is because if I demonstrate the Six Pillars of character, and you do also, that we will be able to establish trust, the bedrock of a relationship. That trust is not about perfection, but a confidence that what guides our moral and ethical compass is about mutual respect and a desire to work for our mutual well-being.
I hope this post has brought forth your own thoughts about character and where you are on your journey. Let me know. Also, Richard Smith has allowed me to share a poem he wrote in 2010 entitled, “Character Counts!” I hope you find his contribution valuable to your understanding. I do.
Toward a better you…
Care, what motivates me
Hospitality, what welcomes you
Altruism, what transcends us
Responsibility, what challenges me
Awareness, what disturbs me
Compassion, what touches you
Tolerance, what honors you
Empathy, what connects us
Reconciliation, what heals us
Contentment, what nurtures peace
Openness, what connects hearts
Understanding, what opens possibility
Needs, what stimulates us
Trust, what frames us
Sacred, what defines us
–Richard W Smith 14 March, 2010