About Character

“Character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self respect springs.” ~Joan Didion

First off, I have to take issue with the author’s definition of Character to start with. As one of my favorite authors, philosopher CS Lewis stated (paraphrased), “to take a word that is based on fact, and to make it into a word based on feeling, is to make the word useless.”

A proper definition of character is necessary here I think;
“char·ac·ter –noun: 1. the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing.
2. one such feature or trait; characteristic. 3. moral or ethical quality: a man of fine, honorable character.

I don’t like when people take a word that has a specific definition and try to redefine it. The willingness to accept responsbility for one’s own life is best left as a complete sentence. There is no shortcut way of saying it in my opinion, but if one were to insist on using “one word”, I would suggest “self-responsibility”, certainly not “character”. To “slap” a complete idea with one word just to make a “short word”, without considering the basic definition is unfair to the word that’s being used erroneously.

Having said that, there is the rest of the quote to deal with: “// The willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life is the source from which self respect springs.

I have to respectfully disagree with this portion of the quote as well, although at first glance I certainly appreciate taking responsiblity for one’s life, and a sense of self-respect.

I think taking responsibility for one’s life can be the BEGINNING of GOOD character, and as one develops good character, a sense of self-respect can sprout forth. However, willingness to take responsibility and actually being responsible and making responsible decisions are two very different things. A person who starts out with POOR character- one who steals, lies and cheats, can have all the good intentions in the world, but unless the person begins to take actions that are correlated with responsible living, which is a trait of good character, that willingness won’t foster much self-respect. I think it’s the repetition of good behavior oriented toward becoming a person of good character that will grow self-respect, which in turn is may help to build good character.

Surely I don’t mean to say that it isn’t important to accept responsiblity for those values in my life, because I can’t begin a JOURNEY to good character, without that step, but I think it is a building block towards good character, and that good character fosters self-respect.

To take it a step further, I think that self-respect can also stem from a very deep, penetrating sense of being loved. For me personally that sense comes from my faith in God and in His love for me. My respect is not because I am so great for all that I am, but rather I love myself because I was lovingly made, unique and special, by a creator who cares personally for me.

Journal writing prompt bonus: In your journal, list the qualities that a person has that you consider a person of character? Are these qualities the same for everyone you consider persons of character? Is it different, according to the person? What is your internal definition of a person with character?

Again I part ways from the very beginning, because I believe the word “character” is used incorrectly here. This question seems to imply that “character” is good in and of itself, but that is not true. Character means to me that which was stated above- it is the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing – which means there could be inumerable traits, both good and bad which make up a person’s character.

With that out of the way, if I were to slightly change the wording by listing the qualities of a person of GOOD character, they would basically include my list of my own most important values:
Responsibility (self- as in the above discussion)
Gratitude and

For each person that I consider of good character I definitely will see different character traits. They might have different traits than those above, but I think anyone I would consider good character will have at least several of these traits in common. I think the people with different personalities will tend to show differing good character traits in the public eye. For example, a person who tends to be quiet, might very well be courageous, but the trait more likely to “pop” out to me might be humility or patience.

4 thoughts on “About Character

  1. Heidi September 7, 2007 / 9:27 pm

    I actually comment on character on my blog today too. Nice article. Great depth.


  2. policedynamics February 4, 2010 / 2:51 pm

    Here’s a good definition of character for you: the inward motivation to do the right thing… regardless of the circumstances… and regardless of the costs…

    Or this often used one, with my own twist: character is who you are when no one is looking… and you don’t think you will get caught.

    I’ve just set up a character networking blog for Police Dynamics and Character First! It’s going to be a great site for character in the workplace and law enforcement. Check it out…


    Sheriff Ray Nash


    • NJHeart2Heart February 4, 2010 / 3:45 pm

      Sheriff Nash,

      First off, just letting you know I so respect your profession. I just recently saw a TV segment on violence against police and it was very sobering. If I could afford to buy a bullet proof vest for one of my locals myself I would… You all have a tough job, but thank you for serving your communities!

      Secondly, about your response. While my emotional side wants to agree with you, I again have to modify your definition. Character is not automatically positive, helpful or kind. GOOD character is more analagous to your comment.

      The whole point of my post (and I’m ashamed it’s been so long since I’ve posted here), is that people these days all too easily take words based on fact and turn them into words that merely describe.

      Here is the quote from C.S. Lewis to which I refer and from which I made my point:

      People ask: “Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?”: or “May not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ, than some who do?” Now this objection is in one sense very right, very charitable, very spiritual, very sensitive. It has every available quality except that of being useful. We simply cannot, without disaster, use language as these objectors want us to use it. I will try to make this clear by the history of another, and very much less important, word.

      The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone “a gentleman” you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not “a gentleman” you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said – so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully – “Ah but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?” They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man “a gentleman” in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is “a gentleman” becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. (A ‘nice’ meal only means a meal the speaker likes.) A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.

      Now if once we allow people to start spiritualising and refining, or as they might say ‘deepening’, the sense of the word Christian, it too will speedily become a useless word. In the first place, Christians themselves will never be able to apply it to anyone. It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see into men’s hearts. We cannot judge, and are indeed forbidden to judge. It would be wicked arrogance for us to say that any man is, or is not, a Christian in this refined sense. And obviously a word which we can never apply is not going to he a very useful word. As for the unbelievers, they will no doubt cheerfully use the word in the refined sense. It will become in their mouths simply a term of praise. In calling anyone a Christian they will mean that they think him a good man. But that way of using the word will be no enrichment of the language, for we already have the word good. Meanwhile, the word Christian will have been spoiled for any really useful purpose it might have served.

      C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

      Take care, and I will take a look at your site at some point in the near future!


  3. policedynamics February 5, 2010 / 1:31 am

    I understand your point. And you’re right, I was talking about good character.

    As I understand it the work derives from either Latin or Greek and meant a tool designed for leaving a permanent mark, like a chisel. If you think about it, that makes a lot of sense because our character, good or bad, leaves a lasting mark on those around us.

    Please do stay tuned to the blog. I have to prepare a message for our Chapel service here (our regular Chaplain is on leave) and I will be talking about the meaning of true obedience as it relates to character using Scriptural examples. I may post some of my thoughts about this later…

    Sheriff Ray


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