Developing sound character takes work — a lot of work. The hardest part is being honest with oneself, examining one’s conscience and one’s track record, especially under adversity.
Character is one of those terms that’s a bit difficult to define with any degree of precision. Still, many over the years have spoken of it, attesting to its importance in human relations, and some have left behind a trail of memorable quotes to help us understand its nature. I perused a copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, as well as Tripp’s International Thesaurus of Quotations, and did some searches on the internet, including a trip to “the quotations page,” for famous statements on the nature of character. I found some interesting descriptions, several of which support or amplify concepts I outline in my book Character Disturbance.
Those familiar with my writings know that I make a careful distinction between the concepts of personality and character, despite the fact that the terms are often used synonymously. I am not alone in making such a distinction. Elmer Letterman is purported to have said “personality can open doors, but only character can keep them open.” His claim makes the point that although one’s personality or “style” of relating to others can be of such a quality as to be quite attractive and engaging, especially upon initial impression, only those virtuous aspects of one’s character, such as integrity, honesty, commitment to right conduct, etc. will ultimately earn the enduring respect, trust, and support of others.
The importance of character has been known for centuries. The ancient Greek, Heraclitus, proclaimed that “a man’s character is his fate.” And the important role character plays in how a person both views and deals with the world has been reflected upon by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said: “People seem not to see that their opinion of the word is also a confession of their character.” Sam Ewing noted just how much a person’s character affects their attitudes toward work when he asserted that “hard work spotlights the character of people: some turn up their sleeves, some turn up their noses, and some don’t turn up at all!” And when the ancient Athenian statesman and poet Solon said it was wise to “put more trust in the nobility of character than in an oath,” he was not only speaking to the issue of how inextricably honesty is tied to character but also how protests of sincerity and “swearing on a stack of Bibles” is no match for a track record of behavioral integrity.
William Carleton bolsters the contention I make in Disturbances of Character that the nobility of one’s character is not synonymous with the strength of it when he says:
“Strong feelings do not necessarily make a strong character. The strength of a man is measured by the power of the feelings he subdues, not by the power of those which subdue him.”
Others support some of the assertions I have made about the interrelationship between power and character. I have long challenged the notion that power is an inevitable corruptor of character. There is no power greater than the power a parent has over an infant child in its utter, helpless early dependency. Still, most parents of decent character approach such a position with a deep sense of awe and trepidation, careful to wield the power they hold with great care and noble purpose, sacrificing and nurturing as opposed to self-aggrandizing or abusing. That’s why I subscribe to the belief that one’s attitudes toward and use of power define one’s character better than any other qualities. Abraham Lincoln may have said it best: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” In my experience, persons of troubled character tend to seek power ravenously and almost always abuse it when they acquire it.
As a testament to the noble cause of character development, and to the effort and commitment it takes to accomplish the task, James Froude proclaimed: “You cannot dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge yourself into one.” Developing sound character takes work — a lot of work. And as difficult as it is, instilling controls upon one’s baser instincts is the easier part of it, for with determined practice, one can develop virtues. The hardest part is the task of honest self-reckoning: examining one’s conscience as well as one’s track record of performance, especially under adversity. As Helen Keller once said: “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
As hard as it is to define precisely, many over the ages have recognized the existence of the entity we call character as well as its importance to the human condition. In my years of working with people and their problems, I have found no greater edification than to witness folks shaping themselves into a better, stronger person. Perhaps Henry Ward Beecher makes the point most succinctly: “Happiness is not the end of life, character is.”
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