Spirituality for Today – September 2015 – Volume 20, Issue 2

What a Character!

Rev. Raymond K. Petrucci

A photo of Martin Luther King

In his I Have a Dream speech, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. longed for a time when people would be judged solely by the content of their character. What constitutes the content of one's character as opposed to some lesser attribution of being? I would think that one's character is the place where authenticity lies; it contains the virtues one integrates into living or reveals the lack of them. Abraham Lincoln said, "Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing." Building a character is building the foundation upon which one stands; it represents the solid place where one places one's feet. Character can be noble or reprehensible or somewhere between these positions. The properties of one's character often come forth through adversity and challenge. Through experience, one may become disappointed or pleasantly surprised by the "stuff" one is made of. If improvement is indicated, one must not become disheartened, but remember the eternal presence of hope and the need for perseverance.

Psychologists Christopher Peterson and Marty Seligman developed an instrument called the Character Strengths and Virtues Classification System naming six virtues indicative of character strengths:

  1. Wisdom and knowledge combined represent the mental fitness to solicit and utilize information. Suggested strengths include curiosity, interest; love of learning; judgment, critical thinking, open mindedness; practical intelligence, creativity, originality, ingenuity, and perspective.
  2. Courage is the emotional tenacity that drives achievement regardless of the obstacles. Strengths highlighted are in the areas of valor; industry, perseverance; integrity, honesty, authenticity, and zest and enthusiasm.
  3. Love is self–sacrifice for another. Strengths involve intimacy, reciprocal attachment, kindness, generosity, nurturance, social intelligence, personal intelligence, and emotional intelligence.
  4. Justice refers to the desire to complete civic duties that contribute to the larger whole. This includes citizenship, duty, loyalty, teamwork, equity, fairness, and leadership.
  5. Temperance refrains from excess and includes strengths such as forgiveness, mercy, modesty, humility, prudence, caution, self-control, and self–regulation.
  6. Transcendence ties to that which is greater than the self and gives humankind purpose. Strengths include awe, wonder, appreciation of beauty and excellence; gratitude, hope, optimism, future-mindedness; playfulness, humor; spirituality, sense of purpose, faith and religiousness.

[Source: Perspective: The Calm within the Storm, Robert J. Wicks]

Considering each of the six virtues and their concomitant subdivisions, possessing a strong and upright character is a very impressive thing. One, however, may become overwhelmed somewhat by how daunting a task it must be to recognize and nurture all of them. I like to imagine virtues as gifts that grow through weathering the storms and raging winds of temptation and trials. Helen Keller said, "Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through the experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved." She should know. One can discover some re–assurance in reading the gospel narrations regarding Saint Peter and the other apostles. Their characters were challenged in a sequence of growth experiences and teachable moments that the Lord provided and his situation exposed. We are all trying to live in the Pentecost and to give to this world what we can become by living in the Spirit.

How nice it would be if we could learn the truth about the type of character that existed in each person we meet, as if they were wearing a sign or a uniform that revealed the principles that guided their lives. Yes, it would be nice and an interesting experience when we encounter ourselves adorned with that sign or wearing that revelatory apparel. Enough for our day is the task of molding the character that makes us who we are before the world. There are many who are devoid of virtue and pose a threat to anyone with whom they form a relationship. There are many who exhibit an admirable and Christ–like character. Most of us simply are concerned that the good values we believe in and the God–centered life that we are hoping to manifest become our reality. There is such a difference between the meanings of someone saying of another, "What a CHARACTER!" and "WHAT a character!" Let us hope that we be referenced in our life by the latter.