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Ideas and ideals

by Robert Docter, Editor-In-Chief –

Father’s day has come and quietly slipped past without much fanfare or celebration

I found a file folder simply labeled “Dad” the other day. I thought there would be more in it, but then, I realized that no single file could ever contain him. I’ve got whole file drawers full of his writing, his ideas, his sermons, the kinds of thoughts he shared with sons and others.
He had a weekly column in the Western War Cry in the 1930’s called Ideas and Ideals, It led with a caricature of him sitting at a small, short legged table, his long legs sticking far out the other side, two fingers poised, ready to strike an old typewriter.

He talked to us, my brother and me, about many deep issues, mostly in short spurts – never preaching, directing, or imposing his will on us. He wasn’t much for a lot of rules. I can’t remember him ever using the word “should.” If I asked for advice, he would offer it. As we matured we made all our own decisions.

Character was a huge word for him. He wanted us to have good character, but he never went too much into detail about what that meant or how to do it. This troubled me in some of my growing years, but now I’m grateful that he chose this tactic. Character is something we must develop within ourselves. It’s not shaped, but it is “caught” through the modeling of significant people in our lives. He modeled the kind of character he wanted us to develop.

Character does develop. I believe we are all born with the potential of good character, but that it must grow from the ideals we hold dear.

We don’t seem to talk much about character much any more. On occasion, I do hear Michael.Josephson of the Josephson Institute of Ethics on his short, daily radio shows. My grandchildren’s elementary school uses the “Character Counts” six pillars of character in their ethical instruction. Josephson identifies these as essential qualities in our relationships with others: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. He amplifies behaviors in relation to each pillar. This is about the only straight forward mention of the word “character” today – unless I call my old friend Jim Read up in Winnipeg for a lengthy discussion.

So how does one achieve good character?

In answering this question I try to analyze what my dad did. I figure it starts with the super-ego. My dad didn’t identify it this way. It’s the judicial branch of our personality that we put together from the standards and ethics of our parents. They teach us the rules and tend to use many parent words like “should” and “must” and “because I said so.”

Gradually, we internalize the culture’s rules. From this, as our brains mature, we begin to generalize the meanings of these rules and a conscience forms. We all have one. It is an ethical construct unrelated to religious beliefs. We do, however, use the Golden Rule as the principle on which we move from super-ego dominance to the actions of a conscience. Fundamental to the development of conscience is acceptance of the premise that I should treat others as I want to be treated.

Some doubt the existence of conscience. It been called by this and other labels for centuries. Socrates called it “the indwelling divine monitor.” Adam Smith, a few centuries later called it “the important spectator and great judge of conduct.” C.S. Lewis called it “the law of nature.”

You have one. Try and wake it up.

While all of us have the potential to achieve this transition from rule-based to conscience based decision making, not everyone makes it. Some achieve it much less than others. Our society today tends to be much more rule-based – more legalistic – more dependent on do’s and don’ts rather than on conscience.

With conscience we can judge the good and the bad aspects in a particular choice and choose the good. We are freed from the chains of a rule-bound orientation, unmotivated by fear of punishment or hope of a reward. Acting with conscience allows us greater autonomy without the need for approval from others.

I believe this transition from a super-ego, rules-based orientation to a conscience-based awareness is what Jesus meant when he said he had not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it.

I believe it is from conscience that good character develops. We have many techniques to avoid this growth. Sometimes, we are overly defensive, insecure in the freedom that conscience brings, overly committed to the safety of authority figures, smothered in guilt or shame from prior actions and unable to achieve a measure of self-trust.

Character provides consistency, predictability in our behavior. It gives us a personal expectation of integrity in decision making. This, combined with intelligence, energy, perseverance and dedicated commitment will model for future generations aspects of character that hold promise for future societies and generations.

My dad gave his sons the gift of character, ideals rooted in conscience, and an ethical orientation based on healthy guilt and positive self-esteem.

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