is doing the right thing
when nobody else
When I first met Jamil I didn’t know what to think. He is a charming, funny and intelligent man from Somalia who is active in his community here in the States. He helps many of his own country persons to make it in America as he has done well himself and has a good civil service job. He came across as somebody I would like to know, particularly because I hadn’t known any Somali people before. I would often tease Jamil about his adjustment to our culture as he would with me about learning his culture. It was always done in a good humored and respectful way and fostered the beginning of a good friendship. Only once did we have a stressful exchange about differences between his Muslim faith and my Christian religion. I wanted very much to like Jamil and would often overlook his idiosyncratic behaviors– like borrowing money and not repaying lenders and expecting to come to my house at any time of the day without notice. He looked at me in amazement when I challenged these behaviors. Ultimately I ascribed these behaviors to cultural differences, and perhaps to a lack of cultural awareness on my part. I had always been raised in rather narrowminded culture and craved to prove that I was not narrow minded myself. Besides it’s not hip to think badly of Somalis in my liberal circle. However Jamil’s behaviors continued to get worse. He stole newspapers from our common coffee shop, he got divorced from his wife. And he also did little childcare and he would denigrate American culture. Finally one day I asked another Somali friend what he thought of this behavior. He said, “This behavior is not typical for Somali men. Out of your own need to be open-minded you are being blind to his bad character. Don’t be a fool. Somali men do not abandon their kids or steal newspapers”
Sometimes we need to go outside our normal circles to find out who we really are and understand what we are dealing with. Actually many of us turn a blind eye to our close associates especially when we have an unconscious stake in staying blind. We want things to work out and we may overlook important warning signals. In this case I didn’t need to reject Jamil but I did need to alert myself on how I could be hurt by him and perhaps limit my efforts and extent to which I could be his friend. Too many of us don’t see character flaws in people we know and we continue to be fooled and hurt by those we care for. Most of us only see the external image of people we know and have no idea what we are getting ourselves into, sometimes with disastrous results. Image and character are often confused in our culture. It would be far wiser if we took seriously the brief warning signs that someone we know is not what they appear to be.
What is character?
Character is difficult to define because it has to do with the inner qualities within ourselves and not on scientific, easily observable analysis. It is a measure of how we treat others and how we handle ourselves. It is who we generally are, not how we behave or think at a given moment in time. It is the part of us that remains generally constant in ourselves and defines our identities, a lot like a signature is unique to who we are. Approximately 40-60 percent of who we are is determined by our genetic make-up. Some of us are reserved; some of us outgoing. Others of us are sensitive to others; some of us have a tough skin and aren’t worried about being criticized. Some of us are naturally happy; others of us can’t find sunshine even on the sunniest of days. The rest of our character development is determined by our life experiences, especially early life growing-up relationships and exposure to trauma. The final piece of our character is determined by the culture in which we live and the current relationships we maintain. Generally by age 25 our brains are fully mature and who we are is mostly set for life, subject to some tweaks if we expose ourselves to intense psychotherapy.
Especially noteworthy are people with characterological illnesses, sometimes called personality disorders. These are people who don’t learn from past behaviors and lack empathy for others. About one if 6 of us has a personality disorder and can often do great harm to others. Our true character hides under a false front and is only seen in bits and pieces over an extended period of time, usually lasting over a year. Most of us don’t even know our own true character and live in a world of illusory self-deception. Character can change over time but only with considerable effort in a challenging intimate relationship. Some people do this in a good marriage and become better people. It is always best to examine our own character and improve it over our lifetimes. Why is character so important?
I am certainly not advocating making judgments about everybody we meet. In fact, not taking another person’s inventory is an essential part of addiction recovery as we need to focus on ourselves. Let us not be the first to cast the proverbial stone. For the moment, other people are doing the best they can and we often need them in our lives. Nevertheless, let us realize what we can expect from other people whom we are close to or depend on. Oblivion and naiveté will not do the trick. You don’t treat alligators the same way you treat pussy cats. Indeed, part of embracing the Serenity Prayer means that we have the wisdom to know the difference.
If you are close to or rely on a person with a bad or irresponsible character, especially one that appears to be safe or charismatic , you can count on that associate eventually making you the target of his or her bad character. It can be your worst nightmare. The small clues that people give off in the early parts of relationships are always the gateways to hell (and heaven too!). It’s best to not choose that door and to move on. Problem people are sent to us to keep us on our toes, to learn that all that glitters is not gold and to learn how we deserve better. Character is everything when new people come into your life
Why are we so blind to character?
Many of us want to give others the benefit of the doubt and make excuses for their behavior. We want to appear open-minded and not judgmental towards others, especially when we haven’t know others for very long. We may worry more about hurting someone else’s feelings if we think badly of them. Simultaneously we don’t tend to our own safety needs. Also, most of us have a secret wish to hang on to others almost at all costs. Were we to actually perceive others accurately for who they are we might become scared of finding that out and being alone and friendless. So we hang on for dear life and put the rosy glasses on. The most important need is the need to attach and we may turn a blind eye to bad character simply to fit in and not lose the relationship. Some of us are in a state of external siege and are required to not see bad qualities in our associates. People in corporate jobs are often in this position. Maintaining our illusions appears to keep us safe even when the reality is just the opposite.
Some of us are attracted to bad character. We’re afraid of being treated well and are actually irrationally comforted or excited by bad character in others. Being treated well is not something we feel we deserve and we see no need to discern its absence in others. Some of us are sleepwalkers. Too many of us are in a daze in our overly busy lives and have lost touch with our senses and instincts that give us warning signals about others. Those of us who constantly stare at our cellphones are in this category. Our oblivion appears to keep us safe. Finally, there is no blindness better than oblivion to our own character. Some of us are or fear we are doing bad things ourselves and the last thing we want to see are flaws in other people’s behaviors as it reminds us of our own. Too many of us live with our heads in the sand and hope for the best. Often we miss what good people we already are that our own failings are like molehills rather than mountains. Illusion is the refuge of the wary and perhaps the best we can do at times is to be blind.
How culture contributes to our character?
There is no way to separate who we are from the circumstances that we live in. If we have a happy family life our mood is generally good no matter what life throws at us. Yet few of us in bad marriages can find a sunny day no matter how much sunshine falls into our life. To some extent we are our circumstances. At least half of our happiness is determined by the people we hang out with and the bigger social network of people we identify ourselves with. We may like to believe that we are self-made persons who determine our own destinies but just the opposite is true. For example people recovering from alcoholism speak of having a Higher Power that goes beyond themselves. Recovering people have a much better chance to remain sober if they have active connections with peers and sponsors in a Twelve Step program. On their own addicts are powerless. The same could be said about many aspects of personal growth. We are all pretty powerless on our own: We mammals need each other no matter how much we resist it or feel too proud to ask for it.
It is no brilliant observation to notice how much of who we are is driven by our on-line lives. We live in an image-frenzied culture and we hardly know ourselves. Few us can make it without our cellphones or facebook presence. We often have no idea how to make decisions on our own or know how we rate if we’re not connected. Unfortunately biases and mis-perceptions by others can also discolor our views of ourselves. The very thing that sustains us can also rule our lives.
Few of us know who we really are without our on-line presence. The superficiality of cyber chatting makes us helpless to know ourselves at a deeper level and keeps us from acknowledging real character in ourselves and others. We live too often in two-dimensional lives and get stuck there. We may have a bad case of the shallows, something that would have shocked our ancestors who continually worried about character. Gone are the days of children’s character be assessed on their school report cards.
How to recognize the warning signals of good/bad character
Look at the following signals as they tell us who we really are and how others are around us. Character is everything in relationships. The chickens always come home to roost no matter how much pretending we do. It is best to start with ourselves to assess character. It is necessary to observe who a person is over a long period of time to see someone’s true colors. Hints of who a person is may show up as:
- How considerate and courteous are we to others?
- Do we do the right thing when nobody else is looking?
- Are we open to differences with others?
- Do we have long-term, active personal friendships or not?
- Do we notice the beggar and help the challenged person on the street?
- Do we treat ourselves with respect and honesty?
- Can we delay gratification, be patient and manage our anger?
- Do we generously tip the wait person and pick up our own litter?
- Are we involved with the well-being of others or are we selfpreoccupied?
- Do we ask how other people are doing or just talk about ourselves?
- Do we sometimes lose an advantage when other people might benefit?
- Do we give up our seats on the bus to elderly and handicapped people?
- How much do we support charities and render assistance to those in need?
- How often do we apologize for hurting others and make amends?
- How often are we kind to people we have no connection to?
- How active are we in lessening world problems?
- How capable are we of forgiving ourselves and others who have hurt us?
Guidelines for bettering our own character
Clearly we are each works in progress throughout our lives. None of us need to give up on ourselves no matter how much trouble we’ve caused. None of us is beyond improvement or is a lost cause. Each day can be a new day in improving how we relate to others and treat ourselves. Often it is our small efforts that change the world as we know it.
I am a big fan of gratitude and honesty. Noticing on a physiological level how kind other people are to us on a daily basis can free us to be unabashedly kind to others. Once you feel kindness in your body you get hooked on kindness. For example, I get a lump in my throat and feel glee when I see the morning newspaper on my doorstep. Given the harsh weather of Minnesota at such an ungodly early hour, I cannot imagine that the dutifulness and dependability of my newspaper delivery person could ever be explained by the modest wages he or she is paid. Many people throughout our week are not just doing their duty towards us, they are extending us kindness. If you have any doubts trying delivering newspapers or mail to see what it takes. But we have to recognize and savor the kindness to build our own character. The only way I know of thanking such people is to say hello when I see them and to pass their kindness on to others.
The list of people we can be grateful to is a lot longer than we are aware of or ever imagined. Ask yourself, “How many people do I owe words of gratitude to?” Neglected relatives, old high school teachers, forgotten buddies, inspiring coaches and people that made a real difference in our lives are awaiting our calls. What stops us from thanking them? Heaven forbid if we ever wrote a thank you card to a long lost loved one or a teacher who inspired us! Doing so affirms something valuable in ourselves that can extend to many other parts of our lives. A wise nun once told me, after I was admiring her extensive career in teaching and inspiring students, “We nuns don’t do great things, We do small things with great kindness” We are all capable of such character.
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990).
Last Updated on February 17, 2022