Human achievements cannot be measured simply in terms of wealth, power or fame. Such accomplishments belong to a small group of elites who are blessed with special talents and good fortunes. Basking in the glory of success and wielding immense influence, they are idolized, envied or feared, but not trusted. According to Viktor Frankl, great human achievements can also come from great suffering. Ordinary people can become extraordinary heroes when they maintain their spiritual freedom, human dignity, and compassionate heart in the midst of unimaginable horrors. They witness to us that the defiant human spirit and character strength can carry us through impossible circumstances. They achieve greatness not through talents but through perseverance. Over comers like Dr. Frankl evoke our affection and trust, because they inspire us to live with greater courage and optimism.
I once worked not just because I wanted to but I need to. Not all students are privileged to study without working odd jobs. I was born to a middle class family. I felt that life becomes hard to us. My father has no regular work, and Mom is a plain housewife. My two younger sisters are both in high school, and our youngest brother is still in grade school. Starting a proprietor business has never been an easily done task for any family. There is the usual risk of money investment and those halting feelings of, “What’s going to happen if we fail to make profit? Could we lose everything?” All these daunting problems never fail to scare most families away from establishing their own businesses, and our family was not an exception from the norm. Before, my father had a steady job as a professor at a university while my mother took classes at the local community college. Unfortunately they found themselves unemployed when the company where they worked was reorganized. Extremely disappointed by the layoff, they were not sure what else they could do. Using the money, they thought of a ludicrous idea to put up a business. We lived in a nice town in rural area, surrounded by our Southern amenities, a business just didn’t seem imperative; in short the business sank. I realized after much reflection that I can think of only one answer – character. Nothing can be compared with character in terms of lasting values. If we can instill in us the kind of unassailable character and moral fortitude exemplified by Viktor Frankl in Nazi concentration camps, we have given ourselves what is needed to survive the worst of adversities.
I experienced working as a cashier at a fast-food outlet in the morning and scurried in the afternoon at the nearby Education Center, where I enrolled in a course on scholarship grant given by a government official to students who have no grades below 85. I remembered that my line of work gave me the opportunity to make myself pleasing before customers. I embraced the truth to always smile at customers whether I woke up at the wrong side of the bed or was loaded with school requirements that have to be submitted the following day. Wearing a long face was a no-no at work. Each customer has the right to demand the best service he thinks he deserves. Well, do you know that our emotion is like a big circle? How you feel affects your thoughts; your thoughts affect your behavior; your behavior affects other people’s reactions; and then, their reactions affect your emotions! That’s how it is and if you don’t have the right character then you can not make all the difference in real life situations. We can relax and enjoy the relationship, only when we are working with someone with sterling character. The quality of life for both individuals and society depends on the character of its citizens.
In every generation and every nation, our greatest need is men and women of good character, who dare to do what is right, choose the road least traveled and follow a higher calling. They are the light and salt of the world; for without them, there would be no way to stop those with unbridled ambitions, insatiable greed and unmatched intellect for evil. Only character is capable of opposing wholesale degradation. Only character can transform an open sewage into a fountain of life-sustaining water. What kind of quality do you want to see in your president, professor, partner, physician, or any person of significance in your life? Who do you want to trust with your life and children? People with character!
But what is character anyway? If we don’t know how to define it, how can we tell whether someone is an honest man or a con? Often, we require a character reference or a letter of introduction, but we can never be sure that it is not just hogwash. There are serious obstacles when we attempt to identify the touchstones. Broadly speaking, character refers to some trait or personal quality that distinguishes one person from another. It is similar to personality, except that character has moral connotations, such as good character or bad character. By and large, character is not something that just happens by decree or happenstance. Nor is it acquired through instructions of moral precepts. Like an oak tree, it takes time and weathering through the storms to grow character. Helen Keller says it well: “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.”
I did not find it easy juggling between work and studies. There were times when I felt like giving up and choosing the easier way instead –living each day as it comes. The average individual may indeed fall prey to the oppressive situational demands, but there are always some brave souls who shine in the midst of darkness. It is precisely the kind of situations simulated by Milgram and Zimbardo that would separate out real precious stones from gravel. The amazing thing is that often those who consider themselves the paragon of morality actually fall apart under pressure, while some “little guys” may be surprised to discover their own moral fortitude in times of crisis. It is trial by fire that reveals whether one life foundation is made of wood and straw or gold and silver.
Character is essentially a collection of habits. What matters most in character formation is not religious belief, nor head knowledge of moral precepts, but the consistent habit of doing the right thing in difficult situations. What really counts is the consistent discipline of making ethical decisions in good times and bad times. It is through consistent moral and spiritual habits that we develop and reveal our character. At the end of one’s journey, when the applauses or jeers become distant memories, when victories and defeats no longer matter, all we possess is our character. In spite of our flaws and failures, if we are able to keep our integrity intact throughout the bruising battles, we can die with a smile on our lips and peace in our hearts.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Wellington Square, UK: Oxford University Press.
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