Role mod­els are im­por­tant for so­ci­etal well-be­ing

The Boyertown Area Times - - OPINION - John C. Mor­gan teaches phi­los­o­phy and ethics at Al­bright Col­lege’s School of Pro­fes­sional Stud­ies in Read­ing. He can be reached at dr­johnc­mor­gan@ya­hoo.com

Char­ac­ter is what you fi­nally un­der­stand when you find some­one who doesn’t have it, as when they steal money or tell lies to your face. But what is char­ac­ter? Char­ac­ter is who you are when no one is look­ing. It is the sum to­tal of your genes, choices, and be­hav­iors over a life­time that when com­bined de­fine who you re­ally are, not who oth­ers think you are or even who you think you are.

Here’s the ba­sic thought of char­ac­ter as ex­pressed by the Greek philoso­pher Her­a­cli­tus: “char­ac­ter is des­tiny.” Here it is in Greek: Ethos (char­ac­ter or ethics) an­thro­pus (man from which comes an­thro­pol­ogy) dai­mon (des­tiny or fate).

You can’t blame your genes or your up­bring­ing com­pletely for the choices you have made; al­though you can of­ten be shaped by the cir­cum­stances in which you find your­self, es­pe­cially when grow­ing up. But I have of­ten found the peo­ple I most ad­mire are those who have come from dif­fi­cult be­gin­nings but by their own choices and hard work be­come bet­ter hu­man be­ings.

But you be­come a bet­ter per­son by prac­tic­ing who you want to be. Prac­tice may not make you per­fect, but it does make you a bet­ter per­son if you try to live by the val­ues you say you re­ally be­lieve in, es­pe­cially those virtues of com­pas­sion, wis­dom, and mindfulness. “We are what we re­peat­edly do,” wrote Aristotle. Of course, the neg­a­tive is also true: If you re­peat­edly lie or steal from oth­ers, you be­come a worse per­son.

If you have never tried to prac­tice what you preach or be­come the kind of per­son you want to be, then you have not ful­filled your des­tiny, the rea­son you are here so short a time pe­riod on this earth. As Socrates said; “The un­ex­am­ined life is not worth liv­ing.”

I know it is not po­lit­i­cally cor­rect these days to speak about role mod­els, but I think role mod­els are im­por­tant, both for in­di­vid­ual and so­ci­etal well­be­ing. And they are not al­ways the ob­vi­ous choices. For ex­am­ple, one of my role mod­els was Bill, the jan­i­tor where I went to school. He sim­ply hung around the cafe­te­ria and lis­tened. He had no for­mal de­gree ex­cept that of learn­ing over a life­time to prac­tice com­pas­sion, the gift of lis­ten­ing to some­one with­out judg­ing them, help­ing them reach their own de­ci­sions. I once asked him what mo­ti­vated him to act this way, and he re­sponded: “I just try to treat oth­ers as I want to be treated.” That sums up best what many world tra­di­tions have said about how to live well.

I think about the char­ac­ter of Bill in the light of some of the po­lit­i­cal fig­ures of our time who cheat, steal and lie their way to power and fame. I won­der what our chil­dren must think about how best to live. I know what im­pact the pow­er­ful have the cul­ture in which they live, and it is not an eth­i­cal one, if one be­lieves that ethics is about treat­ing oth­ers as you want to be treated.

Of course, there are eth­i­cal politi­cians as there are moral per­sons in ev­ery vo­ca­tion. The one I consult of­ten for his wis­dom is Mar­cus Aure­lius, the Ro­man em­peror who came to power in 161 A.D. dur­ing a time of wars and in­ter­nal prob­lems. This morn­ing, I was read­ing his Med­i­ta­tions, and these words reached out across the cen­turies to re­mind me that even peo­ple in power can show forth great char­ac­ter: “One thing here is worth a great deal, to pass thy life in truth and jus­tice, with a benev­o­lent dis­po­si­tion.”

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