What does it mean to have good character? Well, sadly, it’s a complicated concept that flat out doesn’t get enough attention. This lack of attention is the very reason I’m writing this post. One can go about defining the concept in any one of a number of different contexts. However, the understanding of good character that I will discuss is that relating to moral and ethical excellence earned through one’s actions and beliefs.
What does it mean to have character?
Good character, in itself, is simply a standard of excellence. It is an attachment to one’s principles and values. Furthermore, it is based on what you do each day. Each and every one of us has the ability and opportunity to decide their values. However, the concept and practice of values leave a lot of room for interpretation. In order to live a life rich with character, one’s values must link to principles and said principles must match one’s actions in order to develop good character.
- Values: an individual’s ideas about how things should be, and what matters most to you personally
- Principles: the rules you follow to make sure you are living in accordance with your values
- Character: the strength with which you abide by your principles
Sadly for individuals seeking a quick fix, due to the ‘doing’ component of character development, one simply cannot develop character overnight. In fact, it is that much more difficult to develop character if your individual values and principles are never tested in the real world. You can talk all you want about your values, but it is impossible to tell people that you have character. Why? Well, you must live it to earn it.
How does one develop it?
One can develop their sense of character through real-life tests, specifically in the face of adversity and difficulty. Simply going through a tough time, or being tested does not mean you develop character automatically, adherence to your principles when they tested is what defines character.
For instance, it is wicked easy to be nice when everything is going your way. It doesn’t take character to be nice to your peers when you’re in the middle of a pleasant day. However, you are developing sound character if you exhibit the same behavior when things aren’t going your way. This is especially true if being nice requires a conscious effort on your part. You develop character when you don’t feel like it and it’s harder to manage your emotions. This is when you develop character. Challenging moments and adversity develop character because they prove to you and to others that you can abide by your principles when it matters…when times are tough.
Values & Character
To focus on values means that you’re focused on ideas. Ideas are abstract in nature and are constantly shifting. You can tell people what they are, but it is darn near impossible to show people said ideas. The way in which we interpret ideas varies from person to person. Value-alignment, in practice, is essentially useless for this very reason. It is wicked easy to claim that you value something while never actually living any part of said values. We all know people who value the idea of health, yet totally neglect their physical and/or emotional well being. The same goes for businesses that claim to value their employees, yet look the other way when employee well-being threatens the bottom line.
Values are simply not as useful, nor as practical, as principles and character. As a nation, the United States is virtually unanimous on the value that ‘children should not get shot in school’ – we value the lives of children. Sadly, the principles differ greatly beyond the agreement and value-alignment that children shouldn’t die in school. Whether it be arming teachers, disarming the nation, installing security measures, etc. The difference in principles is what creates the dissonance, not a difference in values. Principle-alignment – the alignment of rules you make to live your values – is far more important than values alignment, which is simply agreeing in terms of ideas.
Principles & Character
If you claim to value helping other people, and that the follow-on principle for you is that you “will help someone when you see that they could use a hand,” then you don’t have any character built around that principle until you actually encounter said scenario. However, if you see someone needing help, and you help, then you are building character. If you had to really go out of your way, such that it was difficult for you to help the person, you are then building stronger character since it took even more commitment to live according to your principles. If you ignore the person in need of help and pretend you didn’t see it…well that’s just simply a lack of character.
We see values without principles, principles without action and a scarcity of character everywhere these days. We need to encourage and champion character in our children, our schools, our workplaces and public institutions and hold them accountable for their actions…not simply the words that they tout as values.