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Does character matter? How do I become successful? How can I increase my luck? How can I put more time in my day? How can I learn to stop worrying? This book offers workable, practical steps to managing the details of your life so you can reach your life goals. These answers will transform your life.
Do I always have to forgive? How can I forgive myself? How can I get past feeling angry? What is love and how can I find it? How can I build a better relationship? Here you'll find the keys to living with and loving the people around you. These answers will transform your relationships.
Is truth important? Why is there evil in the world? What is the meaning of life? How can I get past my fear of death? How can I find happiness? These answers will bring you solace.
Questioning the Infinite
Does God exist? What is the soul? Does prayer really work? Do miracles really happen? Is it important to have a religion? If you think these answers are unanswerable, you're in for a big surprise. These answers will satisfy your soul.
Mr. Hess was a good husband, a loving father, and a devoutly religious Catholic. He was happily married, with five children who adored him. As a boy, he had been especially fond of animals and nature, so it was only natural that he took up farming as a young man. He prospered as a farmer for several years. Recognized for his administrative skills, he was offered a series of government posts, and he succeeded in each one.
Every morning, Mr. Hess would have breakfast with his family, then leave for work, often pausing in his well-tended garden to enjoy the colors and fragrances of the flowers. He would put in a long day at his job, conducting staff meetings, making important decisions, handling paperwork, issuing directives. At the end of each workday, his children greeted him at the front door. They were always happy to see him, because he was a tender and affectionate father the kind you might remember from Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best. He often brought them little gifts. He spent a great deal of "quality time" with his children, playing with them or helping them with their homework.
It was a wonderful life for Mr. and Mrs. Hess and their children. He made good money, held a responsible position, and was highly respected. His loyalty, patriotism, and administrative skills had earned him the respect and trust of the nation's popular and beloved leader. That is why the leader of the nation a man named Adolf Hitler had rewarded Mr. Hess by placing him in charge of the expansion of the Auschwitz extermination complex in southern Poland. From the bedroom window of his secluded home in the country, Mr. Hess even could see the chimneys of the camp, sending up plumes of smoke from the crematoriums. TherThere the bodies of those deemed "undesirable" by the Nazi state primarily Jews, Poles, Gypsies, and homosexuals were consumed by fire, day and night.
Rudolf Hess was raised to be obedient, to work hard, to live a productive life. He approached the operation of Auschwitz as if it were a large farm or factory. He was the architect of the plans that kept the assembly line of death moving efficiently. He met his quotas. He took pride in his work. He was extremely efficient. Over two million people died at Auschwitz during his administration of the camps.
Beloved family man. Devout Catholic. Mass exterminator. How did all of these roles come packaged within the mind and soul of a single human being? As Lyall Watson explains in Dark Nature, it was because Rudolf Hess had erected a mental wall of separation between his home life and his professional life, "living in one reality that was bestial and vile, and another that was nurturant and humane, commuting daily between the two for five productive years."1 In other words, Rudolf Hess was able to compartmentalize his life. He lacked integrity. Integrity is a character trait the quality of being whole, undivided, and uncompartmentalized. Had there been integrity between Hess's professed religion, his love for his family, and his behavior toward mankind, he could never have ordered those two million deaths. Is character important? Well, a few people of character and integrity in positions of power could have averted a Holocaust. So yes, in this instance at least, character, or the lack of it, was literally a matter of life and death.
But what about you and me? Does character matter in our everyday lives? Let's explore these questions for a moment.
What is character?
What do we mean by the word character? In the broadest sense, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, character is simply "a distinguishing feature or attribute" of someone or something. In that sense, a person could be said to have "good" character attributes or "bad" character attributes. But the dictionary also defines character as "moral or ethical strength" and that, I think, is what most people think of when they hear the word character.
For our purposes, let's define character as
"the sum total of the ethical and moral traits you need to live a good and decent life." In our increasingly secular society, there has been a trend away from an emphasis on ethics. And in our pluralistic society, it's simply impossible to get a broad-based consensus on the rules of morality, which descend primarily from religion.
But character, as we've defined it here, transcends morality and religion. Character transcends politics and philosophy. We may not all have the same views on what is proper sexual behavior. We may not worship alike. We may disagree on politics and philosophy. But the issue of character cuts across all those differences. An atheist can have as much character as a country parson. A Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, and Green may have different views but identical character traits. The "character issue" cannot be "owned" by any segment of the political spectrum, whether liberal or conservative or middle-of-the-road.
A person of character doesn't need a law to tell him not to cheat or steal. He knows that cheating or stealing would be a violation of his character. It would not just break a law, it would desecrate his soul. He could not lie and say, "I'm a person of character who happened to tell a lie." He would know that in the act of lying he had become a liar. A lie wouldn't just break a rule, it would stain his character.
The ancient Greeks had a high regard for character much higher than we seem to have today. The Greek concept of character was embodied in the word arete (pronounced ahr-ay-TEE). The concept of arete was defined in the epics of Homer the Iliad and the Odyssey and there is no English word that conveys the full depth of that Greek word. Arete embraces our English concepts of virtue, honor, excellence, nobility, courage, prowess, self-control, duty, and loyalty. That is a lot of meaning for one little word but that is how profound this matter of character is. Character is the glue that holds an individual together. More than our views, attitudes, ideas, or beliefs, it is character that truly defines who and what we are as individuals and as a society.
The qualities that make up character
Let's take a look at some of the qualities that make up this thing we call character. First, the character quality of integrity: As we have seen, integrity is the quality of being whole and uncompartmentalized. A person of integrity is exactly the same at home, at work, and at church or synagogue. He is the same person, behaving the same way, whether in public or in private, whether being watched by a crowd of thousands or totally alone and unobserved. Integrity holds all the other character traits together. If you have integrity, then you cannot be honest at home and a liar at the office you will demonstrate consistent character in every phase of your life.
Next, the character quality of honesty. Question: Would you want your emergency appendectomy performed by a doctor who cheated his way through med school? Well, the Center for Academic Integrity in Nashville has recently sounded a wake-up call. After surveying 7,000 students on twenty-six college and university campuses from 1990 to 1995, the Center revealed that nearly 80 percent of students admitted to cheating at least once. Donald McCabe, associate provost at Rutgers University in Newark and founder of CAI, says we are witnessing a "dramatic increase" of cheating in the halls of academe and he attributes the rise of dishonesty to poor adult role models and lack of character instruction by parents.2 Dishonesty has a real economic price tag. When someone shoplifts in a department store, the price of goods must be raised to cover what retailers politely call "shrinkage." When employees steal from the boss, prices must be raised again to cover the cost of dishonesty. The FBI estimates the loss to American businesses due to internal theft alone at between $40 billion and $200 billion a year.3
Gregory Slayton is one of the most phenomenally successful executives of the Internet-based "new economy." In January 1998, he took over a failing software company, MySoftware, Inc. Two years later, the stock of the company now renamed ClickAction (NASDAQ listing: CLAC) was trading 4,000 percent above its January 1998 price. While I was working on this book, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gregory Slayton in his Palo Alto office. He told me one thing in particular that really stuck in my memory: "Character is more important in the new economy than ever before. Things move so quickly in e-business that there's often no time to get the lawyers involved in drawing up contracts. You have to operate on trust and a handshake. You have to know that the people you're dealing with are honest. If you can't trust each other, you can't do business."Next, there's the character quality of fairness. People of good character are evenhanded and fair-minded. They live out the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., who said in that powerful speech before the Lincoln Memorial, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." His was a dream of fundamental human fairness. Fair-minded people treat everyone alike, regardless of such superficial distinctions as skin color, gender, religious conviction, sexual orientation, and so forth. You cannot be a person of character without being a person of fairness.
The character quality of compassion is also essential to good character and to a healthy society. Few Americans knew very much about Jordan's late King Hussein. But the Jordanian people knew him well and grieved deeply when he died of cancer in early 1999. Why? In large part, because he was a man of compassion. A young woman named Zwein Madi was a beneficiary of the king's kindness. When a friend of her family asked King Hussein to help with the treatment for Zwein Madi's rare and painful genetic disorder, the king didn't hesitate. He took care of all the bills more than $20,000 out of his own pocket. The king regularly listened to a morning call-in show on Jordan Radio. People sometimes called in with needs, problems, and crises, many involving children. He often picked up the phone, called the radio station, and solved the caller's problem on the spot. For example, when a bus driver, a father of eight, asked for help getting a heart operation for his seven-year-old daughter, King Hussein not only paid for the $5,000 operation, but thousands more in postoperative treatments.
And, King Hussein did not just practice "checkbook compassion." When a military pilot was severely burned in a helicopter crash, the king visited the pilot almost daily throughout his treatment and recovery. There were many people whose medical cases he followed personally, making calls and personal visits, talking to doctors, and following up. There are literally hundreds of stories of the compassionate acts of Jordan's King Hussein. He didn't do these compassionate deeds for "good PR" or political advantage after all, you don't elect kings. He did them for the same reason he gave his people paved roads, modern irrigation systems, and improved agricultural technology: He truly cared about his people.
When King Hussein's successor, his son Abdullah, ascended to the throne, there were many doubts and questions: Would King Abdullah be strong enough to fill the political vacuum created by King Hussein's death? Equally important, would Abdullah be compassionate like his father? The doubts about the U.S.-educated Abdullah were intensified by his eccentric tastes for American blue jeans, Star Trek memorabilia, and Tex-Mex food.
But King Abdullah quickly silenced his critics with his strong leadership. Most important, King Abdullah not only continued the tradition of his father's compassion, but took it a step further. Several times since becoming Jordan's new king, he has disguised himself as a taxi driver or common laborer, going out among his people to find out how they live, what they think, and what they really need from his government. For example, he spent a day in disguise in a government hospital in Zarqa, observing how doctors treated (and mistreated) patients. His visit resulted in major reforms at that hospital and other government hospitals around Jordan. As a result, the people have embraced the new king as a worthy successor to his compassionate father.4
Generosity the spirit of altruistic giving is another essential Quality of character. Philosophy professor Loren Lomasky of Bowling Green State University recalls the time he was seated by his friend, an economist, aboard a plane preparing to take off. The plane was nearly full when a young family came down the aisle a dad, a mom, and a babe-in-arms. Because they had boarded late, they couldn't be seated together. The father was put in a middle seat, many rows behind his wife and child. But shortly before takeoff, the passenger on the aisle next to the father offered to trade seats with the mother and her baby.
"Looks to me like market failure," said Lomasky to the economist. "That fellow gave up the better seat without compensation. Don't you think it would be more efficient to have a market in passenger seat rights?" In reply, the economist suggested that the passenger traded seats (a) in order to avoid guilt feelings, or (b) to obtain selfish pleasure from doing a good deed. "This was explanation enough for my friend," Lomasky concluded. "Subsequently, we chatted about design possibilities for airplane-seat auctions and the failings of the Republicans." But sometime later, another possibility occurred to Lomasky: Perhaps, he pondered, "the passenger acted out of generosity."5 Ah, generosity! Sheer human altruism! What a quaint idea! Could it be that a person could actually have the trait of generosity built into his character? And wouldn't the world be a better place if it were filled with people of generosity!
And then there is tolerance what a much-needed character trait that is in these times! But what exactly is tolerance? Simply put, to tolerate is to put up with something, even if you don't agree with it or like it. True tolerance is a "live and let live" attitude. A tolerant person is able to say, "I don't have to agree with other people or like what they say or do, but if they're not harming anyone, let them be."
Some people like to say, "I'm tolerant of everything but intolerance." I suggest those people learn to tolerate a little intolerance. Some people have seemingly "intolerant" attitudes about certain things, and often those attitudes come from their religion, from the scriptures that they consider sacred. Should you and I tell them they have no right to believe what their religion teaches? If we don't tolerate their "intolerance," what have we become? Antireligious bigots! We have become intolerant of another person's religion! My friend Conor Northup shared a brilliant reductio ad absurdum with me, penned by Canadian journalist Ted Byfield:
To believe anything at all is to believe it true. To believe something true is to believe that whatever is incompatible with it must be false. And to believe somebody else's belief false is implicitly intolerant. Therefore, if intolerance is an evil, belief itself in anything is an evil. So the only way we can get rid of intolerance is to prohibit belief. Which, of course, would be very intolerant indeed.
So let's build the character quality of tolerance into our own lives, and let's learn to even tolerate what may seem a bit intolerant to our "enlightened" selves. Even if we don't like what some people do, say, or think, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone, let's put up with it. So many character traits, so little time. There's self-control the ability to master one's behavior and impulses. There's diligence, often called a "work ethic," the character trait of a person who strives for excellence, who is never satisfied with "good enough," and is ambitiously dedicated to reaching his or her highest potential. There's patience, the quality of being able to defer immediate gratification in favor of a better reward down the road.
There's perseverance, determination, persistence, unstoppability, or what Walt Disney used to call "stick-to-it-ivity." There's courage, the willingness to take risks, face obstacles, withstand opposition, and brave dangers in the defense of a worthwhile cause or the pursuit of a worthwhile goal. There's rationality, the commitment to sound reasoning as a path to understanding and a guide to behavior. There is self-reliance, the ability to take responsibility for one's own life and actions; a self-reliant person has confidence in his or her own ability to make independent decisions and does not shift blame for mistakes onto others.
You may have some character qualities in mind that I didn't list. In these few pages, I have tried to be thorough, but I don't pretend to be exhaustive. The point is this: Yes, character matters. It matters to each of us as individuals. It matters to relationships. It matters to society. Without people of character, society could not exist.
Character and decision-making
How, then, do we build good character? Answer: by making good choices. Character is a by-product of the choices we make on a consistent, daily basis. Here are some choices that lead to good character:
Stop living to impress others. Don't fake it; be real. Make sure you are the same person in private that you are in public. Make a daily commitment to say what you mean and mean what you say. Choose to accept full responsibility for your mistakes, offenses, and flaws without evasions, excuses, or blaming others. Choose to deal fairly and compassionately with everyone you meet. When confronted with a tough decision, ask yourself, "What is the courageous thing to do in this situation?" Commit yourself to doing what is difficult and right instead of what is easy and cowardly. Choose to accept challenges, because mastering challenges builds character.
Life is about making choices. I often hear people say, "I have a decision to make, and I'm confused about what I should do." That is rarely true. Usually, there is no confusion whatsoever about what a person should do. The confusion is between what he wants to do and what he knows is the right thing to do. For people of character, these decisions are fairly simple they do the difficult but right thing, and they suffer few regrets.Maybe you've had a friend who said something like this to you: "I'm torn between being faithful to my wife and having a fling with a woman at the office." For a person of weak character, this is a major dilemma. But for a person who has character qualities of integrity, honesty, and self-control? Hey, that's a no-brainer. The person of little character always has an excuse. "Be faithful to my wife?" he says. "When this sweet young thing at the office is coming on to me every day? Easier said than done!" Look, everything is easier said than done. Going to work every morning is easier said than done. Brushing your teeth is easier said than done. A person of character accepts reality and does what needs to be done.
People of character don't whine, "I can't choose! If I become an astronaut, I can't become a supermodel! If I buy the Lexus, I can't have the Mercedes! If I order pizza, I can't have Szechwan! If I marry Jerry, I can't have Joey! If I choose one, I'll lose the other!" Every choice entails a loss. If you take the road that forks right, you can't go left. Nobody gets to have it all. Everybody makes choices.
Some would say, "But that's too tough!" Of course, it's tough. Everything worth doing is tough. Interviewing for a job is tough. Running a marathon is tough. Getting a degree is tough. Losing weight is tough. Quitting cigarettes is tough. Getting off drugs or booze is tough. Maintaining a healthy relationship is tough. Resisting temptation is tough. Raising kids is tough. Writing a book is tough. Life itself is tough really, really tough.
It takes a lot of moral, ethical strength to live a good and decent life. It takes all the integrity, compassion, self-control, perseverance, and courage we can muster. It takes all of that and more. And that's why character matters.
Author Biography: Jim Denney is a freelance writer with more than 45 published books to his credit. He has collaborated with numerous authorities and celebrities from many fields, including sports, entertainment, business, psychology, and religion. Answers to Satisfy the Soul is his first book as sole author; other solo projects are under contract with various publishers. He worked with Super Bowl champion Reggie White on the football star's autobiography, In the Trenches, and with Orlando Magic executive vice president Pat Williams on his motivational classic Go For the Magic (each sold over 100,000 in hardcover). Another book Denney wrote with Pat Williams, The Magic of Teamwork, garnered praise from such notables as novelist James A. Michener (“a wise and needed book”), L.A. Lakers head coach Phil Jackson (“an outline for success in any business”), and CNN's Larry King (“a classic, one-of-a-kind...four stars!”).
Jim Denney has also worked with supermodel Kim Alexis on her book A Model for a Better Future and with Star Trek actress Grace Lee Whitney on her Hollywood memoir The Longest Trek.