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Character: What Is It? How Does It Affect Our Relationships?

Aug 17, 2007
Our character is formed by the choices we repeatedly make, and by the choices we determine not to repeat.
I like the old Russian saying: "A fool learns from his own mistakes. A wise man learns from the mistakes of others."

I also like the definition of insanity I once heard: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over-and expecting different results each time.

But let's face it: We don't all start out in life with parents who have a clear view of how to help us develop good character. They may have meant well, but for the most part they were "winging it."

So we enter into life with characters that are unevenly developed. That's the bad news. The good news is that Life will supply us with the lessons we need to strengthen the weak areas of our character.

The biggest asset we can have in facing these challenges is a clear realization that building character is the purpose of human life. We are working at it every moment of our existence here, and it's the only thing we take with us when we leave.

So, if we live consciously, recognizing that the core of our purpose in life is to build and refine our own character through the way we treat ourselves and others, we can avoid the insanity trap of doing the same mistaken things over and over while expecting things to change.

All these things apply to women as well as to men. But men usually have the greater hurdles to get over in order to resist letting their character slump.

Just as a potential Olympic champion must continually strive to exceed his own best, and needs good coaching to do it, so a man needs to strive to exceed his own best, and needs good coaching to do it.

In marriage, I've discovered that a good model to adopt is the Hero/Coach model. Every man is born knowing he is a hero-that he has a special purpose to fulfill, that only he can do. And every woman, when she sees the man that is to be her husband, sees that heroic vision, and sees what it will take for him to fulfill it. So she takes on the role of coach. (In my book, "Every Man a Hero, Every Woman a Coach, I explain about the heroic role of women, too, and the coaching a good husband gets to do.)

One of the main jobs of the Coach is to help the Hero build his character by showing him that he is making the same mistakes over and over, and that there are alternatives that will give him more of what he wants.
That's what every good coach does for their hero, but it is a difficult job. No one wants to be told they can do better. But getting this coaching is part of the Hero's quest.

Some growth and improvement will happen in the course of overcoming challenges, but the character-building process can be accelerated by becoming conscious of it.
Character has something in common with the weather: Everyone talks about it, but few people do anything about it. So my goal in this section is to focus your attention on what you can do in the realm of character improvement with the help of wisdom capsules in the form of quotations.

Face it: If you are not entirely happy with your life, you need to change something. Waiting for change while doing the "same ol' same ol'" is futile.

The most important self-improvement project in your life-it runs in parallel with everything else you do, have done, or will do-is the purposeful construction of your character.

William James, in a talk to teachers on "Habit," said, "We are stereotyped creatures, imitators and copiers of our past selves. What we become is not the result of a single act, but of the cumulative decisions and actions of our lives."

Beryl Markham, 20th-century English adventurer and author, wrote, "If a man has any greatness in him, it comes to light, not in one flamboyant hour, but in the ledger of his daily work."

Jenny Craig, of weight-loss fame, said it well: "It's not what you do once in a while; it's what you do day in and day out that makes the difference."

The word "character" comes from a root word that means, "engraving tool." That's why the (Random House) dictionary definition of "character" is: "The aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of a person or thing; moral or ethical quality; qualities of honesty, fortitude, etc.; integrity; reputation."

Of course, one can develop a bad character. But that's no accident either.

From the point of view of physics, qualities of character-good and bad-are highly organized; they are not arbitrary arrangements of traits. They do not occur spontaneously or accidentally; they are found only in those who repeatedly choose to act in certain ways, and not to act in other ways.

No designer expects to produce a great design without a plan; in fact, "plan" and "design" have similar meanings. To produce great character, in yourself or in others, you must have a plan.

Philosopher John Stuart Mill said, "A character is a completely fashioned will." To develop good character, we work on our will. We exercise it according to our choices, and we are responsible for the outcome.
Our life is like driving a car. If we close our eyes and take our hands off the steering wheel, we are still responsible for where the car goes-and will bear the consequences of our choices.

And be aware of your motives. President Woodrow Wilson offered this caution:

"If you will think about what you ought to do for other people, your character will take care of itself. Character is a by-product, and any man who devotes himself to its cultivation in his own case will become a selfish prig."

This is why most wifely coaching consists of reminding a man to do his duty to others. As he does this, his character develops beauty and strength with minimum effort.

That is why-in our nation's earlier history, when character was more universally taught, understood, and worked on-it was a common saying, "Behind every great man stands a good woman."

In our more cynical age, that became the humorous, "Behind every great man stands a surprised mother-in-law." But if the man is truly great, the mother-in-law will not be surprised; she will know her daughter coached him to greatness.

There's a Chinese saying about thoughts, "You can't stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from making a nest in your hair."
Character development begins with your thought life. Thoughts do not just "happen" to you; they are under your control. Identify the thoughts you want to think, and refuse to entertain others.

When negative thoughts pop up, have a set of memorized antidote thoughts-your chosen beliefs, an encouraging song, or a recounting of your blessings-to which you can turn your attention. After a while turning from negativity and ugliness becomes automatic.

By taking control of your thoughts, you ultimately control the formation of your character. Tryon Edwards (great-grandson of Jonathan Edwards, the well-known New England preacher of Colonial times) expressed it neatly, "Thoughts lead on to purposes; purposes go forth in action; actions form habits; habits decide character; and character fixes our destiny."

Men: You already know what good character is; you know it when you see it. Few will contest that it includes honesty, promise-keeping, integrity (that is, having all your thoughts, words, and deeds bear the same message, even when no one's looking or listening), loyalty, virtue, and love.

Do these words describe your character? If not, where are you falling short? If you examine yourself, you'll find you have wrong habits in that area. To improve your character, isolate those habits, and plan to change them. Then enlist help: Your Coach will be your greatest aid.

Aristotle wrote, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit." You have the power to change your life.
About the Author
http://AwesomeMarriage.com - Dr. Joel Orr, "The Marriage Fixer," is a world-renowned consultant, speaker, and author on computer technology for engineers and architects. He and his wife, N'omi, have been counseling and coaching married couples for over 25 years.
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