Character Not Easy Row To Hoe

Sarah E. Williams  |  12/22/2005 11:18:28 PM

News You Can Use For January 2006

As 2006 begins, well-meaning people will write or at least compile a mental list of New Year’s resolutions. A number of the resolutions may be repeated from last year’s list, which was quickly discarded when, at last, it became impossible to keep.

LSU AgCenter 4-H and character education expert Sarah Williams says the following suggestions may help us understand what it takes to become the persons we would like to be.

"If anyone tells you that being a person of good character is easy, you should set the individual straight. It's not!" Williams asserts, explaining, "It is tough to do the right thing when pressure and temptation are bearing down on us.

"All around we see examples that people are not mirroring the Six Pillars of character – trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship – when they make decisions with few repercussions," Williams says.

Obviously, kids see the same. Children may not always listen to what we say, but they do believe what we do. This means that the role we play in modeling appropriate behavior only intensifies the desire we must have to do the right thing regardless of the cost.

We all readily need to admit that no one said it's easy to be a good person. The character expert offers a few examples in which no one said it would be easy:

– To be honest when it might be costly, to keep inconvenient promises and to put principles above comfort.

– To be on time, to control anger, to think before speaking harmful words and to sacrifice the now for later.

– To bear criticism and to learn from it, not to get angry at the critic and to avoid pointless fault-finding.

– To admit error, to take advice, to apologize sincerely (and even to accept an apology) and to forgive and let go.

– To keep the faith when you fail and to accept defeat without losing heart.

– To respect those who cannot be of help to you, to respect others' dignity, privacy and freedom and to value all persons.

– To accept the consequences of your choices, to make all you do worthy of pride, not to make excuses and to be prepared and diligent in our efforts, whatever we pursue.

– Not to complain, to stop feeling like a victim, to make the best of every situation and to be cheerful for the sake of others.

– To share, to be consistently kind, to think of others first and to judge generously.

If we find it's not easy to live up to the Six Pillars of Character, how should we respond? Or, if we visibly struggle in making ethical decisions, how can we expect others to do the right thing? Do we give up?

Williams says understanding the critical role we play in seeking answers represents a challenge of monumental proportions. All of us have an opportunity to be recognized in the battle we fight for good character. It was Edmund Burke who said, "All that's necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing."

Williams says we should strive to do our best to make sure we make good choices when confronted with tough decisions. Three aspects should be emphasized when responding to how we live when we realize it's not easy being a person of good character. These three Cs of character will enhance our ethical well-being when they consistently become a part of our daily lives.

Commitment. By our actions we strive to do the right thing. Even though it's not always easy, we desire to do right for two reasons. The first can be for our own self-interest. Being a person who is committed to good moral character has distinct advantages. We know from personal experience that most people prefer to work with others whom they can trust. Having people believe you not only increases your credibility, but allows for understanding and compassion when we are seen not at our best.

Second, we should be committed to ethical behavior because it appeals to the intrinsic value of good character.

Consciousness. When making ethical decisions, we need to be cognizant of our stakeholders and key principles associated with the six pillars. No one said it would be easy. But when we are confronted with ethical dilemmas, we must consider the consequences of our choices in terms of stakeholders. Who will be helped or harmed by the choice we make?

After answering this question, we need to systematically filter our decision through the six pillars of character. This means putting the core ethical values of trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship above non-ethical values of power, prestige, money, romance and friendship, just to name a few. Will our decision violate any of the six pillars? Or, to put it another way:

– Am I being trustworthy?

– Am I treating all people with respect?

– Am I acknowledging and living up to my responsibilities?

– Is what I propose to do fair?

– Am I demonstrating that I care about others affected by my decisions?

– Is my conduct consistent with good citizenship?

Competency. This involves both moral reasoning and being able to be an effective problem-solver when struggling to be a person of good character. Being able to develop creative and realistic options that allow us to implement decisions with tact and good sense are key for us if we are going to resolve to be better tomorrow than we are today.

"Yes, it's true. No one said it would be easy," Williams emphasizes, adding, "But, strengthening our commitment, while raising our level of consciousness and then enhancing our own competency can truly make a difference."

Michael Josephson, who founded the ethics training institute that bears his name, shares the following story that speaks directly to our need to be the best we can be when it comes to our character.

After 50 years of working for Ben, a prominent builder, Sam, a master carpenter, announced that he wanted to retire. Asked what he was going to do, Sam said he would use his savings to buy a piece of land and build a small cottage. Ben thanked Sam for years of outstanding work and gave him a $1,000 bonus. He asked Sam if he would build just one more house before he retired. Ben said it was for a very special person and asked Sam to do his best work. Sam was disappointed at the bonus, but he agreed. Ben gave Sam plans for a lovely home located on a choice piece of land with a magnificent view.

Sam began his work but clearly his heart was not in it. He was distracted and resentful. His work was shoddy. He ignored details and he even substituted inferior materials so he could pocket the difference. When the house was finished, Ben gave Sam an envelope. Inside was a key to the house and a note, "This is my final gift to you." Immediately, Sam was filled with shame that he misjudged Ben and regretted that he was so careless in building the house he would live in for the rest of his life.

"How many of us make the same mistake?" Williams asks. Through our daily actions we build the house we will live in. Poor choices, careless decisions and neglected relationships are the shoddy workmanship and inferior materials of our own life building effort at being a person of good character. Whenever we take shortcuts to get us through the days, we shortchange ourselves for the years. If we put in less than our best and ignore our potential for excellence, we create a future full of creaky floors, leaky roofs and crumbling foundations.

Good character does not happen overnight. But that should not deter us from beginning the journey.

"Perfection is not the ultimate goal," Williams explains, adding, "We should strive to be better tomorrow than we are today."

Former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said, "I am not as good as I ought to be. I am not as good as I want to be. I am not as good as I'm going to be. But I am thankful that I am better than I used to be."

For information on related family topics, click on the 4-H clover at the AgCenter Web site: www.lsuagcenter.com. For local information and educational programs, contact an extension agent in your parish LSU AgCenter office.

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On the Internet: LSU AgCenter: www.lsuagcenter.com
On the Internet: Louisiana 4-H Web site: www.louisiana4h.org

Source: Dr. Gary M. Smit, Superintendent, Lombard School District 44, Lombard, Illinois
Source: Sarah Williams (225) 578-2196, or SAWilliams@agcenter.lsu.edu

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