The other night I watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - a 1962 classic Western about character, integrity, courage, sacrifice and community. Seeing the choices the men made in the movie got me thinking about the place of character in our modern world.
The way I see it, every teaching, lesson, difficulty … every challenge you face throughout your life builds your character. Every choice you make shapes the kind of person you become, and it's cumulative. Your character is you - it's your legacy, your imprint, it's the impact you leave on others. In short, your character matters.
So what does good character look like? It's when a person's actions reflects more of their higher qualities than their lower ones. Meaning when someone acts more often from a place of courage, tolerance, respect, altruism, honesty, love, compassion or forgiveness than they do from cowardice, intolerance, disrespect, aggression, denial, defensiveness, pride or envy.
It sounds easy, but we all know it's far harder to be the better person in the complex relationships and situations of our lives, when our pride is burnt and our feelings hurt. Of course we all want to be treated fairly and justly. And there's the challenge, right there.
Are you able to transcend your lower impulses by making higher choices?
Ultimately what creates character is the action you take despite how hard it is for you personally. Here are just a few character-building choices:
- the moral or ethical choice you make in an amoral/unfair/unethical situation, despite the personal cost.
- putting your own needs aside for the welfare of others.
- the fierce conversation you have because it’s important to tell the truth.
- standing up for someone who’s being mistreated.
- sometimes holding your tongue, when that’s the most compassionate action.
- giving into grief rather than pretending everything’s fine.
- learning from failure and not giving up.
- being kind and helpful because you can.
- facing the truth of a situation rather than denying it.
- being willing to forgive, let go and move on.
You build character when you take the highest, most evolved option at the choice points in your life, even when it hurts to do so.
Because you have that choice. You can take time to reflect and check in with yourself, with your truth, before making decisions. You can ask yourself the tough questions and be willing to see through all the defensive filters and walls your ego will throw up to get to what's true. To determine what's really going on. To discern the wisest course of action in any situation.
You have that wisdom within you - in your heart, but you have to choose to get out of your own way, and detach from the thoughts and emotions that will keep you from hearing it.
And whilst you can't control other people's behaviour or reactions, and you can't change the past, you can choose to take the higher ground from now on - that can be your legacy. You can make your next choice count. Because it is always a choice. And your choices matter, to you and to how you show up to others.
The choice points in our lives are the moments that stretch you to recognise your vulnerability, that you don’t always get it right, and neither do the people around you. And sometimes you get let down by others, sometimes it’s desperately unfair, and sometimes you're the one being unreasonable. We're just human at the end of the day.
But it's when you continue to lean into your life, no matter what has come before, and keep your heart open despite past hurts, that you strengthen character. It's when you’re willing to learn from past mistakes, and take responsibility for your part in it all, that you build character.
You can do all the personal development in the world, but the true test of your character is how you show up in difficult situations. No one else may give it much fanfare - because daily life keeps us well distracted. But we all recognise good character when we see it. We all want to be surrounded by people of good character, who will do the right thing by us. That is far more valuable and precious than any outward marker of success.