The other day my boys and I were driving into town. It’s about a 30-minute ride, and we often have very interesting conversations. We were talking about speed limits and my boys were asking how much over the speed limit I am willing to go before I think of it as speeding. I told them that no matter how fast I went over the speed limit I felt I was speeding, but I usually allowed myself about 2 miles per hour over the speed limit. (Yes, I am one of those annoying people who goes pretty close to the speed limit!) They stated that Dad didn’t feel like he was speeding until he passed 5 miles per hour over the speed limit. I said, “good for him, he’s not me.” They asked if I had a really long straight stretch of road if I would be willing to speed, just to see what the vehicle would do. I told them no. They asked, what if you knew there would be no cops. I still said no. They wondered why not. I said, “Character is who you are and what you do when no one is watching, and I want to have good character.”
It’s interesting thinking about this, and then reading about it as I have pondered upon character. I found it interesting that several people talked about reputation versus character. I thought a lot about that. To me, reputation is what we want people to see, character is who we truly are. Reputation has a huge influence, but a good reputation doesn’t mean that you are a good person, likewise, a bad reputation doesn’t mean you are a bad person. To me, a reputation is what others think, what others perceive. That is something I cannot control. Reputations can be built without you ever doing anything if others decide they want to talk about you. Reputations can also be destroyed over night just because people don’t like you. However, character, who you truly are is something only you control. No one else has that power. When someone destroys their own reputation it’s usually because they have poor character to start with. A reputation of a good person can be destroyed, but the good that they do, and the good influence they have had is a lot harder to dismiss or get rid of. We cannot control what other people think or say of us, the only thing we can control is ourselves and how we respond to the myriad of different situations we find ourselves in on a daily basis.
So, what is character? This is something I have also consider a lot, and this is something you somewhat have to decide for yourself, but I think there are some basics that make up a good character, and things that everyone can strive for. These are a few of many that I think are important:
- Honesty/trustworthy – This is something I see lacking in our society today. People keep their word as far as it is beneficial to them, but if a little lie or a little twist of the truth would be more beneficial, or make them look better, they go for it. I remember learning about being trustworthy as an older child. I had a tendency to tell small lies. One day my mom told me that she simply could not trust what I said any more. I couldn’t believe it! Didn’t I deserve to be believed! She said I could earn her trust back, but it would take time and work on my part. I wanted to be trust, so I worked hard. Eventually I was able to gain her trust back, and I have never done anything since to lose that trust. I strive now to be honest in all my dealings. Do I slip up occasionally? Of course, I’m not perfect, but if I do, it bothers me so much that I have been dishonest, I have to return and apologize and try to make amends. I don’t ever want anyone to question my honesty ever again.
- Responsibility – This is one I have always tried to do, I don’t remember any particular reason that this has always been important to me, but I was always taught to take responsibility for my own actions. My kids have sometimes struggled with that, and I feel badly that I made such a big deal out of it when disciplining, but I believe they are the better for it. Sometimes they can’t see how their own actions affected the situation, they can only see how the other person reacted, and we have some pretty humbling discussions about how our actions affect others, but we need to see that, we need to realize that what we do doesn’t just affect us, but others, sometimes only a few, sometimes large amounts of people, what we do has a ripple affect and we need to take responsibility for those actions.
- Self-Control – This one may seem funny as a character trait, but we need to have self-control. I remember as a kid we had everything we needed, we were very blessed, but we didn’t have tons of excess, we used what we had wisely, and we saved for what we needed. We took care of the things we had so they would last. In today’s world everything is disposable. Something breaks you go get a new one, a new version comes out, you replace the old one even though there’s nothing wrong with it. Don’t have enough money, use credit cards, get a new loan, pay it off later, or maybe never. We are not a society that looks to the future. We want things now. Self-control is gone, we eat too much, we spend too much, we play games too much, we don’t take our responsibilities seriously. There is no character building in that. Character comes from seeing the bigger picture, making priorities, and then striving for them. Pay off the loans, save up for the car, eat healthier. They all take work, they all take time, but the rewards are not just about self-control, but about being at peace.
- Integrity – This one is harder to define, but I think is one of the most important ones. Integrity to me is having a moral code that I live by based on truth. Truth is non-negotiable. I remember my son learning how to write his numbers. He struggled with the number 8. Finally, one day he said to me, this may not be how it’s supposed to be, but this is how I write my 8’s. I told him that’s not how it works. In our society today we hear so many people talk about truth as if it’s something that can be changed based upon circumstances. That’s not how it works. Whether we accept it or not, there are truths that exist independent of what anyone claims are their reality, for example – Everyone can agree that killing another person is wrong, or that stealing is wrong. Those are truths that are non-negotiable. There are many truths that exist, we need to seek those truths, because they make us better people.
There are so many more attributes that make up character: knowledge, wisdom, accountability, dependability, kindness, courage, selflessness, good work ethic, just to name a few. A good character is not developed by happenstance, but by conscientious effort over a long period of time. The small things we do every day, the little acts of kindness, the little patience we have in a hard situation, the benefit of the doubt we give when no one else does, being honest even when it might hurt us. We decide on what is important and then we make a conscious effort to make choice that coincide with that. The nice thing is, we have a lifetime to develop a good character, but we need to work on it every day, every choice.
A couple quotes from my reading that I loved, the first from Author/historian: Erasmus – “We sow our thoughts, and we reap our actions; we sow our actions, and we reap our habits; we sow our habits, and we reap our characters; we sow our characters, and we reap our destiny.” We need to be aware of what we are doing, where we are going, and how we are getting there, and if it’s not a place we want to be, we are the only ones who can change it.
The second quote is by Earnest L. Wilkinson – “Character … is not something to be obtained by ease and indolence or being socially agreeable. It cannot be acquired by absorption or by proxy or on the auction block. It is a reward derived from honest toil in overcoming difficulties. We grow by mastering tasks which others consider impossible.” You can read the article here. I love this. We can change, we just have to decide to and then work on it, day by day.