C is for Character
Updated: Jun 12, 2022
“Good character is that quality which makes one dependable whether being watched or not, which makes one truthful when it is to one’s advantage to be a little less than truthful, which makes one courageous when faced with great obstacles, which endows one with the firmness of wise self-discipline” Arthur Adams
Our character will affect how we approach life and ultimately affect our future more than any other single thing. Investing in yourself and things that build your character as a priority first and foremost is the best investment that we can make for ourselves and for other people.
So what exactly is ‘character’? According to the Oxford dictionary, character is ‘the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual’
The word ‘character’ comes from the Greek ‘kharakter’ meaning ‘engraved mark’, ‘symbol or imprint on the soul’ and can be traced further back to the words for ‘to engrave', ‘pointed stake’ and ‘to scrape and scratch.’
The term “character” was in common use in the 17th century and peaked in the 19th century. Historian Warren Susman describes how “character was a key word in the vocabulary of Englishmen and Americans,” during the 1800s and men were spoken of as having a strong or a weak character, a good or bad character, a great deal of character or having no character at all. The young were admonished to cultivate ‘real character’, ‘high character’, and ‘noble character’ and told that character was the most priceless thing they could ever attain. From the beginning of the 20th century, however, Warren Susman discovered that the ideal of character began to be replaced by that of personality as a culture of production was replaced with consumerism and values changed accordingly reducing most virtues down to whether a person was’ nice’ or not!
So how do we build character? We all have positive and not so helpful sides to our character but through humility and self-effacing examination of all our traits we can then work on the areas which are holding us back from reaching our full potential and becoming a better version of ourselves.
The best preparation for every scenario we find ourselves facing is to identify our habits and work to change the less helpful ones. The quality of our lives will then be changed positively as we strengthen and improve our character through intention.
Strength of character is not just built from any dramatic test or crisis we face, our character is being made with every minute that passes and every choice we make; it is developed by the myriad of habitual judgements, responses or actions we make every day.
“Character is the sum total of all our everyday choices”. Margaret Jensen
We create our future through our habits. The future is not something that arbitrarily happens to us, it is an ‘external expression of our internal reality’ (MK). Accepting that our character shapes our destiny, perhaps we should ask ourselves what our future looks like and whether we need to invest more in ourselves.
Character is not to do with our talents which are limited and may diminish over time. The ability to improve one’s character, by contrast, is limitless and it will continue to improve and strengthen over time.
“Character is a gift that you give to yourself, and it is one of the few things that can never be taken from you.” Matthew Kelly
Character is at the core of our happiness and the happiness of others.
“Character is built one habit at a time. Good character is built one virtue at a time. Virtue is a good habit, a habit that leads us to become the best-version-of ourselves. The cornerstone of character is virtue” Matthew Kelly
Change is inevitable, but we should focus on change that improves our own lives and that of society. To create positive, authentic change we need to strengthen our characters by developing virtues e.g. trustworthiness, honesty and integrity. By living with our principles, it makes decision making easier and we can be steadfast of character as we create positive change in our individual lives as well as in the wider community.
“I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of the ‘Honest Man’” George Washington
The opposite of character is ego – and the two are constantly battling within us like the story of the two wolves inside us. The one who wins the internal battle is expressed externally. The ego wants to be the centre of attention and is never satisfied but the authentic self is able to embrace the present moment, seeing every situation as an opportunity to grow in character and encourages and celebrates the achievements of others.
If we really want to improve ourselves and wider society we need to make investing in our character rather than our egos our number-one priority in every sphere of our life. When, through self-discipline, we put developing virtues and strength of character first, rather than instant gratification we actively choose to allow everything else to become secondary to our quest to become and remain authentic.
“Character is nature and nurture. It is nature cultured and disciplined, so that natural tendencies are brought under the sway of the moral motive. His natural individuality marks off a man from his fellows by clear and specific differences. But this individuality may be non-moral. To produce character it must be brought under discipline, and organized into the structure of a true moral being . . .Above all, [character] includes a choice, a settled habit or bent of will, so that it can be seen in its outcome in conduct. Character takes up the raw material of nature and temperament, and it weaves these into the strong, well-knit texture of a fully moralized manhood”. William Straton Bruce
Self control goes hand in glove with self-awareness, and as our awareness to how we respond to people and situations increases, our ability to control our responses will increase. Self-control is the foundation for self-discipline and a prerequisite for character.
“Character is the ambassador of the higher self, while ego represents the lower self” Matthew Kelly
The way we approach a task can show our character clearly.
“When work is approached in the right way and with the right frame of mind, it helps us to become more perfectly ourselves” Matthew Kelly
Aristotle said that happiness resides in activity, both mental and physical and not idleness i.e. work is a source of maintaining a healthy mind and a healthy body. We find happiness in doing things that we enjoy and that we can be proud of.
Our true character is not a switch that can be turned off and on according to who we are interacting with or what we are doing; we need to be consistent in character to be trustworthy and uphold our integrity. When we move in a direction that is in line with our values then we will experience vitality and a sense of a full life well-lived.
“There is no freedom outside of character. Liberty, as Montesquieu says, is not freedom to do just as we please. Liberty is the ability to do as we ought. And the freedom that we need is not the freedom of caprice and whim and listening to our impulses. It is the freedom that enables our eyes clearly to see what right is, and then empowers us to do it.” R.E. Speer
Developing strength of character requires effort. It is important to be vigilant as to whether it is our character or our ego driving us in our reactions and interactions with others.
“Character - the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life - is the source from which self respect springs.” Joan Didion
We are more likely to succeed in maintaining ‘consistency of character’ when we are not tired or stressed so it is essential that we practice self-care to give us the best chance of remaining authentic and having self-control and maintaining discipline.
We can help ourselves by opening ourselves up to accountability and surrounding ourselves with people who have high expectations and who will encourage us to aim higher.
“You cannot dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge yourself one.” Henry David Thoreau
The choices that each and every person makes, influences the world around him and so the fate of society is dependent on the virtue of each of its individual members.
“Men of character are the conscience of the society to which they belong”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Some questions to think about/or discuss below:
How would you describe your character?
What are your character strengths and weaknesses?
How is your character affecting your life and that of those around you?
If you want to reflect more on this subject here are a few links to get you started: