Role models are important for societal well-being
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.”