"Character is that which reveals moral purpose, exposing the class of things a man chooses and avoids."

What is more important to you:
a) To be wealthy?
b) To be powerful?
c) To be attractive?
d) To be happy?
e) To be a person of good character?

One can easily prove by looking through magazines about celebrities that wealth, power and attractiveness do not lead to persistent happiness. Can a person without good character be happy for long?

What do we mean by good character? Let's say it is a persistent tendency of a person to make ethical choices. It shows itself in how we treat others and in the actions we take when we think nobody is looking. It suggests an adherence to a moral code and a benign relationship with one's family and community. In this century, for many of us, good character would include the meaning of having a good-hearted relationship with humanity beyond one's local community and a proper respect for the planet.

French journalist Alphonse Karr said, "Every man has three characters: that which he shows, that which he has, and that which he thinks he has." The character others see may not be true, because they don't have all the information. The character we think we have is subject to self-delusion. We may hide our weaknesses from ourselves, because the inconsistency between our ideal self and our actual behavior is too painful to contemplate. If we are to be whole and authentic persons, however, we had better look at ourselves with clear eyes and investigate the shadows of our character.

An intention to be of good character can be a moral compass. When dubious choices present themselves we can ask ourselves, "If I am a person of good character, do I do what I am thinking of doing?" This question can cut through the fears and selfish desires that take us off the path we'd hope to tread.

Cultivating good character would seem to be a worthy goal, and still there is what Woodrow Wilson said about it: "If you will think about what you ought to do for other people, your character will take care of itself. Character is a by-product, and any man who devotes himself to its cultivation in his own case will become a selfish prig." Seems like a lovely paradox. And the way out of it is to minimize the puffing up of self and focus on the well-being of others. When we serve, we develop character. When we cultivate loving-kindness good character follows.


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© 2004 Tom Barrett