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Touchstones of Character

By Paul T. P. Wong

Human achievements cannot be measured simply in terms of wealth, power or fame. Such accomplishments belong to a small group of elites who are blessed with special talents and good fortunes. Basking in the glory of success and wielding immense influence, they are idolized, envied or feared, but not trusted.

According to Viktor Frankl, great human achievements can also come from great suffering. Ordinary people can become extraordinary heroes when they maintain their spiritual freedom, human dignity, and compassionate heart in the midst of unimaginable horrors. They witness to us that the defiant human spirit and character strength can carry us through impossible circumstances. They achieve greatness not through talents but through perseverance. Overcomers like Dr. Frankl evoke our affection and trust, because they inspire us to live with greater courage and optimism.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a letter from a troubled parent. After reading my article on the pervasive problem of terror and violence, he asked: "What can I do to protect my children and bring them up in such a dark and dangerous world?" I have been wrestling with this haunting question ever since.

After much reflection, I can think of only one answer - character. Nothing can be compared with character in terms of lasting values. If we can instill in our children the kind of unassailable character and moral fortitude exemplified by Viktor Frankl in Nazi concentration camps, we have given them what is needed to survive the worst of adversities.

At the end of one's journey, when the applauses or jeers become distant memories, when victories and defeats no longer matter, all we possess is our character. In spite of our flaws and failures, if we are able to keep our integrity intact throughout the bruising battles, we can die with a smile on our lips and peace in our hearts.

Good character is like a rare pearl, a precious diamond - it takes years to form and develop. According to a Chinese proverb, pure gold fears no fire; character is gold. Character cannot be overrated, because as individuals and as a species, our survival and success depend on it.

Character defies the odds, sets us free from all the deterministic forces, protects civil society against all the corrupting influences and assures that good will triumph over evil. It is character that steers us through troubled waters and deadly minefields. Character is the foundation for all virtues, and the basis for all enduring and caring relationships. Character is the pinnacle of spiritual achievement and it defines the best of humanity. Above all, character is priceless - it is the only property that cannot be acquired by money or force; it can only be developed through a lifetime of cultivating spiritual and moral habits.

In every generation and every nation, our greatest need is men and women of good character, who dare to do what is right, choose the road least traveled and follow a higher calling. They are the light and salt of the world; for without them, there would be no way to stop those with unbridled ambitions, insatiable greed and unmatched intellect for evil.

What kind of quality do you want to see in your president, pastor, partner, physician, or any person of significance in your life? Who do you want to trust with your life and children? People with character!

Character makes all the difference in real life situations. Without it, intelligence, competence, courage, creativity, resourcefulness, even love could all be used to exploit others and perpetrate evil. For example, one can be an intelligent crook, a loving seducer or a courageous murderer.

Often, we have to devise defensive strategies and plan for the worst, because we have been betrayed and burnt far too many times. We can relax and enjoy the relationship, only when we are working with someone with sterling character. The quality of life for both individuals and society depends on the character of its citizens.

Character is essentially a collection of habits. What matters most in character formation is not religious belief, nor knowledge of moral precepts, but the consistent habit of doing the right thing in difficult situations. What really counts is the consistent discipline of making ethical decisions in good times and bad times. It is through consistent moral and spiritual habits that we develop and reveal our character.

Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C.Psych. founded the International Network on Personal Meaning (INMP) in 1998 to expand the legacy and vision of Dr. Viktor Frankl. The INPM is dedicated to advancing health, spirituality, peace and human fulfillment through research, education and applied psychology with a focus on the universal human quest for meaning and purpose.
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