A Testament to Character

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Character can be likened to a psychological “immune system” of sorts, insulating a person against both the slings and arrows and the many negative influences of this world — and the admirable characters I’ve met in my life have clearly demonstrated to me the incredible power of just one person to make a significant difference.

History was made when Malala Yousafzai, the 17-year-old Pashtun woman from the Swat Valley area of Pakistan and tireless advocate for women’s rights, became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. It was only two years previously that a Taliban gunman boarded the school bus Malala was riding, asked for her by name, then shot her 3 times, critically injuring her. The youngster and her father, who operates a chain of schools in the Swat region, had both received death threats from the extremists because their advocacy of women’s educational rights. Ever since the age of 12, when she began writing a blog under a pseudonym, and despite the risk she knew she faced for doing so, Malala felt compelled to speak out on the principles of equality and justice. Having miraculously survived the attempt on her life and in the face of continued threats by the Taliban that they would eventually succeed in killing her, Malala uses the notoriety she has gained, the resources that have come her way from the publication of a book about her ordeal, and the added resources that will likely flow from her Nobel award, to champion women’s issues worldwide. This exceptional young woman is truly an inspiration to many and a living testament to the importance and power of character.

While there are few like Malala, I have over the course of my professional career had the privilege of knowing many individuals who remind me of her. These are people who, despite incredible odds, provide living proof of the power of the human spirit. These individuals not only made deep impressions on me but also taught me a great deal. Perhaps the most important thing they taught me is how much character really does matter. I’m not just talking about tenacity in the face of adversity. If tenacity itself were the mark of great character, then all the stubbornly steadfast criminals I’ve worked with in my lifetime, who persisted in their dysfunctional ways of thinking and their problematic conduct despite multiple significant losses and repeated incarcerations and other social sanctions, would be heroes. Instead, I’m talking about unwavering devotion to principle — a devotion so strong that a person is willing to stand up for that principle even when the price tag for doing so becomes unthinkably high. Such folks have also taught me that bad circumstances, abusive treatment by others, etc. don’t automatically cause a person to become a bad actor. (Such a notion was dominant in the behavioral science realm for many, many years, and only recently has research begun to challenge it significantly). While it only takes one contradictory example to disprove a theory about the relationship one factor has to another, I’ve had the privilege of encountering case after case of individuals who came from the most abusive and impoverished backgrounds and experienced traumas more horrendous than anyone could possibly imagine yet somehow managed to become persons of enviable character.

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Bad circumstances just don’t automatically make people bad. It’s not that simple. Poor character is more often the result of things that don’t happen in a person’s life that really need to happen if they’re to develop integrity, and even more often it is the result of toxic beliefs and attitudes the individual forms. What and how we think is important. What we’re taught to value matters, too. Nurturing empathy for others is essential. Those who have learned to think about themselves and the world around them in both a positive and principled way often develop the kind character that allows them to remain decent, even in the face of great adversity. Character can be likened to a psychological “immune system” of sorts, insulating a person against both the slings and arrows and the many negative influences of this world. Lastly, the admirable characters I’ve met in my life have clearly demonstrated to me the incredible power of just one person to make a significant difference. Malala has been quoted as saying that “when the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” And I don’t have to draw from just my professional experiences alone to know that truer words were never spoken. Martin Luther King, Mohandas Ghandi, Susan Anthony, Mother Theresa — they all testify to the power of one person of character to truly change the world.

I’ve spent most of my professional career studying, speaking about, and writing about people of markedly deficient character and the problems the character disturbed can bring into the lives of others:

While I’ve learned a lot from these less than noble characters, I’ve perhaps learned even more from those of genuine integrity. I think we can all learn a lot from such folks, so I wish we’d hear a lot more about them. I know they’re out there, they just don’t come to the public’s attention very often. It’s a shame, really, because of what they have to give us in the way of inspiration, encouragement, and role modeling. Presently, there’s no Nobel Prize for character. Perhaps there should be. Character really matters, which is why I titled my weekly program on UCY.TV Character Matters. And the more society affords attention to and rewards character, the more folks of admirable character we’re likely to see. So my vote is that we create such a category, especially in view of how much it matters to our welfare. All the Nobel Laureates to date have made remarkable contributions to the human condition to be sure. But as far as a contribution to the human spirit is concerned, it’s hard to match the impact that can be made by one person of character.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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