On the Corner
How’s your “character”?
by Robert Docter –
Growing up, my father often urged me to “make my mark in life.” He never told me what that meant or how to do it. He did, however speak much with me about character.
At the beginning, I was never too certain what he meant by that word, or why he emphasized its importance. As time went on, however, I started getting hunches or hints or inferences as to its nature.
Without ever putting it into words, I somehow sensed that character was a fundamental trait by which an individual made his or her basic nature apparent to others. I determined it was some kind of way the person marked himself or herself as unique.
There were no specific lessons or lectures as to the meaning or desirable attributes of “character” my dad wanted me to develop. He taught me by revealing himself—by showing me a life well lived. I learned from his modeling, and now, I conclude that all of us develop the qualities of our character primarily from the modeling of significant people in our lives.
Character is a complicated word with many separate elements working together to form some kind of aggregate whole. I’ve even worked on trying to discover just what those elements might be. Here’s the product of my effort to date.
First, we need to know where we’re going. We need a focus—a direction—a course of action. Individuals, whose goals cause observers to describe them with words like caring, generous, honorable, ethical, dependable, trustworthy, probably have strong positive character. There seems to be an altruistic focus to that person with movement toward positive goals.
If we attach the prefix “un” to those descriptive words, however, observers would probably describe that person as possessing low character. Self-centeredness does not seem to be an attribute of good character.
Then, there is an aggregate triad of commitment, dedication, and perseverance—strong words with vigor all their own—forceful words, as demanding as they are persuasive.
What is commitment? It’s a promise or a pledge. Positive character requires one to explore the nature of the values that float behind the content of the promise. There is no predetermined value orientation to commitment.
Who profits from the promise—self or others? Someone’s commitment to the nation can be described as either honorable or dishonorable. There are two ends to the continuum labeled “commitment.” It’s variable.
It seems to me that commitment can vary in quality—is it consistent or vacillating, high or low? It can vary in purpose—is the action moral or immoral? It can vary in the nature of the product—is it altruistic or self-centered? All these factors participate together in constructing a single web.
Dedication has to do with the extent of one’s devotion to someone or something. “Devotion” has a spiritual connotation. It has within it an element of consecration. There is nothing casual about devotion. How much of a personal investment am I willing to make towards that to which I am devoted and, therefore, dedicated? Is my devotion to my partner exclusive? If not, what is the nature of my dedication? Can dedication be partial and still play its essential role in my character?
No, it can’t. There’s nothing half way about dedication. One is either dedicated or it does not exist in the relationship.
Sometimes that relationship is with a group. It happens with a squad of soldiers in battle, and, on occasion, one sacrifices life itself, for the others.
Perseverance relates to time—to steadfastness even in the face of difficulty. How long does one stay dedicated or committed? How long does one persist in action toward something? The answer lies in the nature of the goals toward which one perseveres. Is it still a goal—or am I maintaining some kind of fanatical movement toward a long forgotten goal? Why would I consider stopping my action toward a goal—is it laziness that leads, a loss of focus, a change in my orientation toward life?
If the goals have been achieved, continued perseverance is counter-productive. But some goals remain before us for a lifetime. If there is progress toward this kind of goal, push on. If there is no progress, stop and evaluate the course of action taken.
Character requires goal setting and awareness. It needs commitment, dedication and perseverance all working together in harmony. Character, you see is a “mark”—the mark I sought to learn about from my father. I strive to assess the quality of that mark daily.
How’s your character?