on the Corner ” Character—what is it?”

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By Bob Docter

My dad used to emphasize general principles like: “Bob, always have strong character, be proud of what you do, always do the right thing and do it well.”

He never explained completely what character meant, but somehow, I put together some do’s and don’ts that seemed to spell out certain behaviors. For instance, don’t cut across a lawn, finish what you start, clean up your mess.

Thinking back, I realize most of these rules came from my mother, and the principle of character got lost. Rules alone do not build character.

Along with trying to find an understanding of the concept “character,” my brother and I were heavily into a basement printing business. We had two presses—one a hand press and the other powered, many fonts of type organized in cases, blank business cards and other paper stock, various ink colors, a composing stone and several typesetting “sticks.”

In those type cases were hundreds of “characters”: letters, punctuation marks and various other symbols.

The concept “character” has multiple meanings.

Once, we got a very important job from my dad, and a critical character flaw in me revealed itself in a highly blatant manner. My dad, the territory’s public relations secretary, wanted to publicize the approaching commissioning excercises, so he gave us the job of printing 12 x 16-cards to be placed in streetcars all over San Francisco.

He was a very trusting man.

Along with a picture and various information in black ink, were two words in two-inch wooden type to be run through the center of the page in a brilliant red ink. While setting the type, my brother yelled over to me: “How do you spell ‘exercises’?”

With great confidence, I immediately replied “EXCERCISES.”

We printed several hundred of these cards and showed the print job to my dad who read the copy (black ink) very carefully and skimmed the red. He then took the job to territorial headquarters to brag about his highly skilled sons, and the commissioner said: “Great job—but how do you spell exercise?”

That night, we were up late and out a lot of money re-printing the job.

(By the way the word “exercises” is misspelled twice above. Did you see it both times? What might be evidence of one or two of my character flaws?)

Moreover, we had several friends in the neighborhood—Archibald Feeney Watson, George (Crazy) Carozzi, and many others whose names fade. They were all “characters.”

So, we speak of “character” and have a sense of the word and its multiple meanings, but rarely do we attempt to examine its precise meaning as it becomes a major contributor to our identity. This is where we need to start if we are to understand its power in defining us.

Webster’s short version defines it as: “the aggregate of features and traits that form the apparent individual nature of a person or thing.”

Our character gives us a “distinctive mark” that represents our “moral and mental constitution.” It makes visible to those with whom we associate a “detailed report of our qualities” (Oxford Universal Dictionary).

So, our character is visible in our behavior and presents something very basic concerning aspects of our personality. It sends either positive or negative messages concerning our values, the criteria we use in making choices pertaining to “right action,” and our general attitude toward ethical behavior.

Character needs to be relatively consistent, but consistency must be defined “from the subjects point of view” (Likona) rather than simply behavioral. Choosing right action must be principled rather than rigid. The rationale for the choice is crucial.

How much does the anticipation of guilt and the desire to avoid it impact character and our choices? Some see it playing a major role while others see it only as a debilitating influence in choice making that leads to a lack of spontaneity and a loss of the generosity of love. Others see it as a major influence playing an essential role in moving from thought to action.

Gordon Allport defines guilt as “a sense of violated value, a disgust at falling short of one’s ideal self-image.” He says that moral integrity needs an emotionally compelling sense of one’s self, ” and that this self-respect “precludes certain actions.”

This sense of self can be a basic source of moral consistency.

Strength of character, then, is much more than a list of don’ts. There must be compassionate commitment to certain values like basic human love, respect for others, fairness, freedom, the pursuit of truth. It broadens the focus to include otherness. It is, I believe, the essential aspect required to defeat a flawed character.

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