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Good character

| Friday, April 13, 2018

We often talk about being good people. Well, our quests to be good people are irreducibly about character.

The mantle of good character is a lofty one, and it is one to which I aspire — despite the times at which I fall short each and every day. But I have some thoughts and a working idea of good character, and I think they’re worth sharing.

Winston Churchill, a man who is surely among the greatest, offered this: “Character may be manifested in the great moments, but it is made in the small ones.”

This quote affirms that character is something to be practiced. It is habitually developed. In this way, it is similar to virtue. They could be the same, actually. Character can be measured by the presence or absence of virtue — virtue here implying commitment to a moral standard of good (see the life and example of Christ). I wonder, though, if character is partly instinctual. Perhaps some have more ingrained instincts of good character, though all surely can develop virtues, and thus build better character.

In any case, character is something which is formed through, influences how you approach, and gives meaning to the everyday tasks and encounters of life.

How precisely does it give meaning?

Though I disagree with Woodrow Wilson’s politics and worldview in many respects, his thoughts on character, specifically how character relates to being a man and living with meaning, are worth considering. “No man has ever risen to the real stature of spiritual manhood until he has found that it is finer to serve somebody else than it is to serve himself.”

This quote is important to shed light on the proposition that people — men especially, because our primary role is to protect — fall into two camps. At the bottom line, when things go wrong as they always do, there are those who will do whatever is necessary to care for themselves and those who will do whatever is necessary to care for their loved ones. Yes, you must be able to care for yourself in order to care for others, but it’s about how much more you’re willing to do. Because you can focus just on yourself and you can make yourself great. But you will never be the best you can be — to Wilson’s point — if you do not also develop the capacity to care for and even prioritize others.

What we see in college — Notre Dame is no exception — is a strong capacity to care for the self (sometimes to a very detrimental degree), but an underwhelming capacity to care for others. We would do well to balance this, and to practice caring for others each and every day.

You’re walking to a door at the same time as another person? Open the door.

Practicing this kind of care for others is critical to developing character. And this is just a small example. The goal I mentioned at the beginning of the column is big — good character, and through this, ultimately reaching the standard of good person.

Ernest Hemingway, at least a writer among the greatest, had this to say: “The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice.”

The next part of the quote is about how these qualities — these virtues — create vulnerability that often leaves these “best people” hurt. I didn’t include the last part, though, because it’s nonsense. If you can be hurt, so what? Being hurt isn’t something to be avoided. Being good requires the ability to accept that suffering is a part of life just like flourishing — in fact, there is no flourishing without suffering. Being good requires, too, the ability to take risks when acing in accordance with what is good is not easy or popular.

Good character which informs a good person, then, means forming good principles, holding all the opposing information you can gather in your head, comparing the reality to your principles, making a decision and fighting … hard. If in the end you do not succeed, you know that you have tried. And you’ve learned something of tempering the negative tendencies of human nature and forgiving others regardless of the outcome. That is a valuable peace of mind.

So there is probably little cohesiveness to this column. I’m figuring this out as much as anyone else, and I am indebted to The Observer staff for allowing me to routinely publish my thoughts (even when they’re submitted a little past the deadline­­).

If you take anything from this, open the door. Then look for little things like that to do every day and for anyone. Your world will open up.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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