There are certain people in the world who bolster my estimation of humanity and contribute hope for the future. By the quality of their character defined by social theorist Amitai Etzioni as “the psychological muscle that moral conduct requires,” they show the best in us to the rest of us.
Tom, in the image above, is a long time friend. Although we haven’t worked together or seen each other in many years, had fewer than thirty phone conversations and exchanged not many more than two dozen emails in that time, I regularly carry him in my heart as one who consistently demonstrated that kind of muscle. In fact, he was the one who, through word and deed, was the first to help me understand the meaning and value of character.
Before and after working with Tom, I was fortunate to become acquainted with many people of character. They were diverse ethnically, young and old, highly educated and not, religious and not, spiritually minded and not, wealthy and not, extroverts and introverts, activists and observers, professionals and stay-at-home parents. My Dad was among them. Character has to do with who we are, not our status, intelligence or occupation. As such it profoundly influences everything we think, say and do.
Curiously, these people are diverse in another way. The duration of our time together is not a factor in terms of their influence on me. Some of these people I’ve known for a long time. Others I encountered only once and in the space of time as short as an hour. Still others I observed from afar or listened to them speak. One such person I just saw in a television interview. This leads me to the conclusion that demonstrations of strong character make a lasting impression. They stay with us because they stand out. And they inspire by example, showing us the solid and lasting building blocks upon which to construct a satisfying, meaningful, stress free and contributing life.
Even as I write, images of particular individuals flash onto my memory screen. I cherish them and am grateful to them for demonstrating the qualities of character that I believe will see us through the social vagaries and trials set upon us by those who are blind to them. As you read the descriptions below, I know you will think of the special people in your life who have demonstrated them.
We all take notice of exceptionally good people. Even in the world of business they are recognized, as when someone says He’s a good man,” or “She’s our kind of person”—code for “Here’s someone you can trust, a person of honesty and integrity.” I have a theory along these lines: I think the consciously or unconsciously perceived “goodness” of a person is one of the less recognized but most potent attractors in forming significant relationships. Along with karma, it might even be one of the components in love at first sight.
Particular virtues are more or less developed in all of us. They manifest differently from person to person and from time to time, so we acknowledge that we are all works in progress with respect to these qualities. So what are they? The following descriptions are my own, not sourced elsewhere. And it’s important to note that these are not criteria by which I judge people. They are just the outstanding qualities of character that I have experienced and try to emulate.
What you are speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
TRUTH / HONESTY
Seeking the truth, gathering more information before sharing it with others. Honesty is making a good faith effort to always speak the truth as we know it. This includes not hiding the truth so others can base their perceptions and decisions on the reality of a situation.
INTEGRITY TO VIRTUES
Having integrity is being consistently faithful to something or someone. Because Adolf Hitler was totally committed to his vision, it can be said that he was a man of integrity. So it matters greatly what we are faithful to. Men and women of refined character are faithful to a full range of virtues—and they demonstrate them in everyday living.
Kindness is interacting with others in a way that fosters or maintains a constructive and mutually beneficial relationship, one that enhances rather than harms. Kindness intends to build and support. It’s criticism is constructive and non-judgmental. It accommodates other points of view and seeks an understanding of differences.
Rather than separate, isolate or disengage people who are different from us, we join, unite and engage them, welcoming the opportunity to explore the possibilities and enrichment that often comes from collaboration.
When we acknowledge someone they feel good about themselves or what they have done. It encourages a repeat performance and creates a bond between the acknowledger and the acknowledged. It’s one of the primary ways to make someone feel important, worthy or accepted. Whenever someone does something good, however small, there’s an opportunity to make their day. It’s the reason we say “Congratulations,” give a pat on the back and present awards. The greater the acknowledgement the greater the contribution to self-esteem.
An expression of gratitude acknowledges that we are not alone, sufficient unto ourselves, that we are thankful for the other and the contribution they make to our lives. As a virtue, gift-giving, sharing and expressing gratitude in return is one of the earliest behaviors of primitive humans. As an act combining acknowledgment and appreciation, it creates bonds.
To appreciate is to enjoy, like or celebrate someone or something. Outward expressions of appreciation automatically include acknowledgement. Appreciation as an inner experience enriches the soul through a perception or valuation that’s in alignment with purpose.
Humility is an acceptance that there’s more to life, living and the universe than the limited mind and experience perceives. Physically, it situates us properly in the scheme of things, between the immensity of the cosmos and the mysteries of the quantum world. Psychologically, it places us somewhere along the continuum between great minds and animal minds. And spiritually it allows us to feel comfortable as we take the next step toward the Great Mystery.
Responsibility is doing what we say we’ll do. It’s follow-through. Better to not say “I’ll call you,” than to say you will and not call. If I say I’ll be there, I will be there or you’ll know why not before hand. Better to not commit to a deadline than be late.
Respect is allowing another’s perspective, method, attitude or behavior without demeaning them as a person. While we may disagree with someone, we accept that they have a right to hold and express their views, to do whatever they need to do—as long as it does not harm.
GENEROSITY / SHARING
Both an attitude and an act of giving. Eagerness to share is also a primitive and potent bonding mechanism.
In the face of another’s suffering that we can do nothing about, we broaden our perspective to see with understanding eyes that their soul is doing what it needs to do. Deep down, compassion desires the health and well-being of all living things, irrespective of circumstances. At a higher vibration, compassion is the companion of universal unconditional love.
One of the most common qualities of refinement is a sense of calm in the voice, and a preference for listening rather than speaking. Foul and abusive language which demeans human dignity, is completely absent.
Another of the most common traits of strong character is a positive attitude, irrespective of circumstances. The glass is always half-full.
An act is thoughtful if it expresses concern, respect, celebration or welcome. Irrespective of that which is presented, its method or magnitude, the message is one of caring. In my experience, the thoughtful gifts, consideration or words that makes the biggest impression are those that are unexpected.
We all make small talk and carry on conversations about health, activities and plans. But one of the signposts of a person of refined character is a desire to gracefully move a conversation to topics that are less ego involving and more universal—ideas and perspectives that matter in addition to everyday concerns. When the subject is meaningful there’s a deeper engagement that has the to potential to heal, inform, uplift or inspire.
As a society it’s not enough that we prepare our children to be intellectually strong, creative and skilled. Fundamental to all pursuits is the development and strengthening of character traits, particularly morality and ethics, which as Etzioni said, are an outgrowth.
This is one of the reasons why I favor religious education, irrespective of denomination, especially in the early years. All the major traditions provide rules for good behavior, and while these may be presented in the context of dogma, the qualities imbedded in them are likely to carry over into later life. Even if they don’t, they provide perspectives to rebel against. Religious rules are important because they are based on virtue, the building blocks that contribute to refinement of the personality. And character.
Because school is formative along with parental and peer influences, it’s the best place to introduce the foundational qualities that will help children succeed and be “good people.” Actually I think that, alongside academics and social and emotional learning, the development of character should be incorporated into the mission of ALL schools. The following is a long quote, but I include it because it evokes consideration along these lines and shows that the wisdom pertaining to goodness and strong character has deep roots in our civilization.
The goal of learning about the good life is not knowledge, but to become good. Since the practice of virtue is the goal for the individual, then ultimately we must turn our eyes to the arena in which this practice plays out—the polis. Legislators make the citizens good by forming habits in them, and this is the wish of every legislator; and those who do not effect it miss their mark, and it is in this that a good constitution differs from a bad one. Laws must be instituted in such a way as to make its citizens good, but the lawmakers must themselves be good in order to do this. Human beings are so naturally political that the relationship between the state and the individual is to some degree reciprocal, but without the state, the individual cannot be good.
ABOUT THIS IMAGE
Title: Facing The Waves
Location: Big Sur, California
Through the early 80’s, Tom and I were board members of the Association For Responsible Communication. We’d served on a panel at a symposium in the Bay area and, along with his wife, we drove down Highway One to speak at an event in Los Angeles. When we saw the Pacific waves crashing against the rocks we had to stop and look. And photograph. With the sun behind Tom I captured him in silhouette, behind a wave that nearly knocked him off his feet.