“I hope he’s going to turn the corner.”
“When he’s not drinking or drugging, he’s a really great husband.”
“As long as he can do the job, I don’t care what he does on his own time.”
The Meriam Webster definition of character is as follows: “The complex mental and ethical traits marking and often individualizing a person, group, or nation; moral excellence and firmness.”
I have been thinking about character and how it impacts individuals and groups a lot lately. In the mental health field, we are often faced with complex histories, stories and situations that we have to make sense of, and then help our clients make sense of. We hear tales of decisions made, relationships entered into, job related difficulties and financial dealings that cause problems for our clients. Repeatedly, they are faced with choices, dilemmas and challenges that must be dealt with in order to heal and move on with their lives. Does character enter into response to problems, how people make decisions and how they treat others and themselves? I would argue that it does.
We all have a certain baseline character or makeup that drives us as we go through life. Our character, personality and temperament are inextricably interwoven with our behavior, decision making and perception of others and the world. This baseline is fairly constant by the time we reach adulthood, and it manifests itself in various ways as we face situations in our lives. It appears to me that our basic character may be unwavering, but our actions, ways of coping and flexibility in learning new ways to deal with challenges may change many times over our lifetime if we are open to that change.
It has been said that people show you who they really are, and that they teach you how to respond to them over time. It has also been said that you should believe them when they do. The best predictor of future behavior is, after all, past behavior. Not seeing a person’s true character, being blind to it for reasons of love or financial entanglements or business relationships, for example, can be problematic. Expecting that a person will change, that things will be better the next time, that they will treat you differently the next time a conflict arises, may be folly. You may have expectations for positive changes over time, but if the other party does not look toward those positive changes, you may be disappointed.
Does aging temper character flaws and negative behavior? Maybe, if a person is open to learning new ways of communicating, new ways to cope with stress and expanding relationships and networks. The other side of that coin? As we age, we sometimes get more entrenched in our existing coping skills and ways of interacting with others, leading to rigidity and further problems. Can a person really be taught to manifest a more solid, adaptable, positive character? Again, the underlying character may be immovable. The actions of the person may be subject to improvement and change.
I asked for the opinions of others I trust on these issues of character, actions and potential change and got some very thoughtful responses. I paraphrase some of the best ones below.
“We are all flawed human beings, and perfection is impossible in any of us, including our chosen or elected leaders. Sometimes the best we can do when dealing with a multiplicity of characters and values and cultural frameworks is to understand the starting point from a values perspective and try to achieve alignment. Hypocrisy, flawed character and deviant behavior sometimes create an environment that is incapable of alignment. Neither party has a good starting point, or can articulate similarities. Working together becomes difficult, or impossible. “
“Character is what you do when no one is watching. People who have poor character may dominate, but they cannot lead. “
“Character is indefinable. I know it when I see it. A person with poor character may be a productive member of society only in short bursts. Eventually he will expose his true self and be forced to move on.”
“Positive and encouraging examples yield a positive character. Negative examples yield either a poor character or one struggling to find its way.”
In my daily work in the mental health field, I see many people who are struggling. Struggling to deal with life’s daily problems and challenges. Struggling financially. Dealing with substance abuse. Trying to salvage a relationship that is foundering. Looking for a steady job that will allow them to support their family. Trying to reach a calm equilibrium in a world that seems to be more chaotic every day. I wonder sometimes if the overall character of our country is changing individual citizens, or if the changing character of individual citizens is fundamentally changing the country.
I believe that in these trying times a strong character, a sense of stable values and the will to be flexible, adaptive, innovative and courageous will see us through. Not just our mental health, but the health and prosperity of our world depend on it.