In our muddled political season of tweets and infomercials, we hear the word “character” a lot. Other times, character may not be directly mentioned in the conversation but it is clearly the thing that is being discussed, particularly with regard to the alleged dystopia of others. A candidate may be lauded for work ethic or vilified for a lack of honesty. Other times, we hear praise for intelligence and criticism for judgment or temperament.
In our own more mundane world, we speak of character as well. We may speak highly of someone for devotion to family. We may sigh disapprovingly at vulgar language. We laud persistence and we loathe petulance.
All these things are important and may even qualify as virtues or vices. But they do not define character. In fact, I suspect we substitute these things for real character out of either confusion or avoidance for real character. In so doing, we give dispensational excuses for our own character avoidance.
I confess my own uncertainty and ignorance regarding character as well as my own failings. As a father, I have wrestled with the question of “how shall I raise my children?” for over twenty years. I’ve smiled at report cards that said my kids were conscientious and have felt affirmed in fatherhood as I’ve witnessed toughness and resilience in athletic accomplishments. I’m the proud papa of academically gifted students. Yet, none of these things are the ultimate measure of one’s character. They are all positive traits but I have come to wonder if the really serve as displacements for true character.
I’ve become convinced that if I could give my children (and myself) just one measuring stick for character, it would be summarized in one simple question. How do I treat others? Ultimately, this is what it all comes down to. There are no rewards in heaven for work ethic, familial devotion, persistence, or even honesty. One can work hard but be unthinking of others. One can be devoted to family but harsh and thoughtless to the world. One can be persistent in pursuit of selfish ends. One can be honest in spoken word as a cover for “speaking one’s mind” rather than listening to others.
The parable of the sheep and the goats seems frighteningly simple and clear. When you were hungry, did I feed you? When you were thirsty, did I give you something to drink? When you were naked, did I clothe you? When you were sick or in prison, did I visit you? Every major religion seems to have a version of the golden rule of treating others as I would treat myself. That is the measuring stick. Everything else is a diversion.
To be sure, I have fallen in the goat pen way too many times in my life. And recognizing that doesn’t mean I won’t do so again. But my treatment of others is the definition of my character and no amount of substitution of another virtue will change that. Treating others with kindness and respect is a life long learning practice that starts with humility and a willingness to stop and see the humanity in everyone. Character is not a state to be achieved, it is an aspiration. And it is always worth aspiring to.