Heraclitus, an early Greek philosopher, who never stepped into the same river twice, gave us the proposition that “a man’s character is his fate.” The word itself is derived from Greek ‘kharakter’ meaning “to mark, to engrave,” i.e. a stamping tool.
For character is indeed the mark of a person revealing what you are inside; whereas your personality is what you are outside and present to the world. Personality implies who we seem to be while character is who we really are. It is made up of morals and beliefs that define how we treat and behave with others and ourselves.
Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) who has been in the news recently for health reasons, both personal and policy-wise, authored a book in 2005, also titled, ‘Character is Destiny.’ He writes: ‘It is your character, and your character alone, that will make your life happy or unhappy. That is all that really passes for destiny. And you choose it. No one else can give it to you or deny it to you. No rival can steal it from you. And no friend can give it to you. Others can encourage you to make the right choices or discourage you. But you choose.”
If character is a choice, then so too is happiness. If life is a stage, we choose the enduring character we play that makes us different from others. The story we tell our children and grandchildren will be about the character we authored for ourselves. As President Theodore Roosevelt said, “Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual (and of nations alike).”
How do we develop this most precious thing that seals our fate? What are the attributes of a ‘good character’ that can lead to a happy life? A generation ago, ‘character development’ was still taught in schools. Now, like ‘penmanship,’ you will rarely see it in curricula, and so we are left on our own to discover our inner gem.
Aristotle spoke of excellence of character being the combination of qualities that make an individual an ethically admirable person; someone with moral virtue or moral excellence. The Greeks had four ‘cardinal’ virtues: wisdom, justice, fortitude, and self- control. Later, this was expanded to include integrity, selfless love, gratitude, and humility. And the way to develop them is to think, speak and perform virtuous actions. A person must not only know the good, but also desire the good, and just as importantly, do the good over and over again until it becomes a habit.
Academicians of today question if character traits are indeed robust; or whether they simply reflect functions of different life situations. Some argue that since people are shaped by their genes, environment, and culture and societal factors then no one can have enduring characteristics. I think they miss the point; but I understand the perplexity. For true character can only be expressed through choice in dilemma. How a person chooses to act under pressure is who she is- the greater the pressure, the truer and deeper the revelation of character.
Character is not to be confused with the way people’s values can shift and change in todays’ world; something reflected in the popularity of television programs like Game of Thrones or House of Cards. We are awash in social media; constantly connected to others via technology, we are continuously saturated in our different roles interacting with family, friends, peers, bosses, teachers, students, and even, strangers and avatars. Instead of character, we focus on social acceptability. We experience a sense of conflict in values, ideals, opinions, and motives; sometimes even feeling like an ‘imposter.’ Everyone wants our attention; everyone wants our time.
Instead of enduring traits, we remain as tentative and undefined as possible: social chameleons that can’t commit to ourselves. With so many possible choices online, we torment ourselves with the thought that someone better will come along later so we never really commit to another. Uncertainty leads to paralyzing indecisiveness. Faced with too many rational choices, we just pick the one that fits the moment, irrational as that may be.
Social media’s promise of developing flowering forms of relatedness, global interdependence, a healing and reciprocal relationship to our planet, and the demise of war is only possible when we use technology with character. A hammer can be a weapon or a building tool. Know your character; know yourself. What do you value most in life? What would you live for? And at a deeper level, who is the ‘entity’ that has the ‘character?’ Who are ‘you?’
Character is simply the ‘Good’ that you are. Said even shorter, character is the ‘God’ that you are. Take the time to study, reflect, and meditate. Meditation is about the perfection of character; sitting quietly and awakening to your Divine nature. Lose your ‘objective’ life and simply be an instrument of God’s will.
Character is destiny. Think good, speak good, do good. Be a good character in your book of life and live happily ever after.