“Character is knowing the good,
loving the good and doing the good.”
— Thomas Lickona
“Character is what you are in the dark.”
— Rev. Dwight Moody
Ethical decisions have consequences, and one long-term consequence is to make you into a person of character. But what is character? It is the sum of one’s distinctive traits, qualities and predilections, and amounts to one’s moral constitution. Everyone has a character of some sort, but not everyone “has character.” Having character is shorthand for having good character, and that means being a person who is admirable because of his self-assured, ethical behavior. Character is ethics in action.
“One’s character is one’s habitual way of behaving,” education scholars Thomas Lickona, Eric Schaps and Catherine Lewis have written. “We all have patterns of behavior or habits and often we are quite unaware of them. When Socrates urged us to ‘Know thyself,’ he clearly was directing us to come to know our habitual ways of responding to the world around us.”
Character is not the same thing as reputation. Character is what you are. Reputation is what people say you are. Abraham Lincoln likened character to a tree and reputation to its shadow.
Conscience is the awareness of a moral or ethical aspect to one’s conduct; it urges us to prefer right over wrong. Because not everyone has good character, not everyone has a reliable conscience. After all, a bad person with no conscience at all feels just as good as a person with a clear conscience. Having a bad conscience is not necessarily a bad thing — it’s a sign that one at least knows right from wrong. As Elvis Presley said, “When your intelligence don’t tell you something ain’t right, your conscience gives you a tap on the shoulder and says, ‘Hold on.’ If you don’t listen, you’re a snake.” More people would listen to their conscience if they liked what it had to say.
Where Does Character Come From?
No one is born with good character. It’s not hereditary. Yet everyone, regardless of background, enters the world with the opportunity to become a person of exemplary character.
Character has to be developed. “We are born with a potential for good character — and for the dispositions and habits that make up bad or weak character,” writes education scholar Edwin Delattre. “Because we are born in ignorance of moral ideals, we must be instructed or trained if we are to achieve a good second nature.”
Whether we give in to or overcome the negative messages and influence we face often depends on whether our parents, teachers, mentors and friends have exposed us to their own good example and morally inspiring ideas.
“Building character” refers to the process of instilling within a person positive, ethical traits based on principles that can be expressed many ways. For reasons of convenience and ease of recognition, they are summarized as the Six Pillars of Character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.
Ask struggling adolescents why they get high on drugs or alcohol or seek sex without intimacy or commitment and they’re likely to tell you they just want to be happy. Ask young professionals why they’re so driven to make money and they’ll talk about all the things they’d get if they were rich, things that will make them happy. Ask adults why they had affairs or left their families and you’ll hear it again: “I just want to be happy.” So, why aren’t more people happy?
One problem is unrealistic expectations. Some people think of happiness as a continuous series of pleasurable emotions, as feeling good all the time. Others expect a much more intense or lasting feeling of joy when they achieve a desired goal. As a result, when getting what they want doesn’t produce the feelings they expected they fall into despondency.
There’s great danger in confusing a sustainable state of happiness with fleeting sensations of pleasure and fun. Those who make pleasure-seeking the focus of their lives soon find themselves needing new and different sources of pleasure. It’s like a drug addict who needs continually higher doses to get high.
Happiness is a kind of emotional resting place of quiet satisfaction with one’s life. It has been said that the art of living a happy life is a balance between getting what you want and learning to want what you get.
Traditionally, there are four main sources of real happiness: loving relationships, enjoyable work, service to others and faith.
Let’s start with relationships. Are you spending enough time and energy nurturing this dimension of life? It may be possible to love what you do so much that you don’t need other people, but more often than not, those who fail to develop and sustain meaningful relationships — with friends, family, life partners — regret their priorities when they find themselves alone. And it’s not just success-obsessed executives who lament the lost opportunities of loving and being loved. Ministers, teachers, police officers and politicians — people who devote their lives to serving others — may be especially apt to neglect the people they need (and who need them) the most.
Is your work likely to make you happy? Of course, not everyone has the luxury of having a job they love. Unfortunately, these kinds of jobs don’t often pay well and, after all, a job is how one makes a living. Still, many people put up with boring or unpleasant work situations because they place too much weight on what they earn and where they work and too little on what they do. If work is not emotionally rewarding you may want to consider trade-offs as an investment in happiness.
Helen Keller said, “True happiness is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” Albert Schweitzer said, “One thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.” These observations should remind us of the potency of peace of mind and sense of value one can get from devoting oneself to a worthy cause.