Today I learned that the word “character,” a word we may use to describe strong, usually positive, personality traits, is derived from Greek where it meant “to engrave.” The etymology gives me a new perspective on the idea of character development in myself and my children. To build character is to etch a heart, to carve a trait into ones very soul.
I am not yet sure how to do this, but I did get to thinking about what I would engrave had I the ability.
1) The world did not begin when you were born, it will not end with you.
Your family, your community, your civilization, your world are all vastly larger than you. Therefore you should know that the world does not need you, much less owe you anything. Better people than you have suffered greater injustices, and the titans of the past have all but faded from memory – as will you.
Yet, though your individual life is essentially inconsequential, your actions can be powerful. The freedom, comfort, technology, art, and everything else available to us was born from countless sires over vast distances and great ages. All the good and ill bequeathed to us is the result of the blood, sweat, toil, and tears of individuals like you. You have the choice to carry and add to that legacy, or contribute to its destruction through vice or sloth.
2) Simplify, simplify
“Simplify, simplify” is my all-time favorite quote from Henry David Thoreau. The redundancy seems to undermine the message, but it can show how difficult it is to get down to the first principles of Marcus Aurelius.
With every problem, and each passing passion, we should struggle to identify what is at the heart of the matter. Forego the extraneous and ornamental, and work to enhance and protect the core of what is important.
3) Be not afraid
Pope John Paul II began and ended his papacy with three words, “be not afraid.” Unafraid, he led the life of a saint and played a critical role in bringing down Soviet communism.
The degree to which we allow fear to lead our lives can be surprising. We have a tendency to cloak our fears and hesitations with the name of “caution” and “prudence.” Our hearts are afraid to love. Our bodies afraid to seem foolish. Our minds afraid to be wrong. In the end we stifle ourselves and deny ourselves the liberties and opportunities Providence has laid at our feet.
4) The Golden Rule
It is called the Golden Rule for a reason. To “do unto others as you would have done to you,” is a universal sentiment, and the root of all compassion, charity, faith, and even courage.
The eloquence of the golden rule, so common to our ears, has lost some of its power through familiarity. This wisdom deserves to be seen with fresh eyes every day.
5) Truth exists
Right and wrong do exist. Avoid the seduction of those who whisper that good and evil are merely labels that depend on one’s point of view. And though shades of gray may cloud our vision, there is objective truth which we are powerless to alter in the slightest way.
Philosophy may forever debate the source of this objective truth, and sophists may tug at the length of its reach, but truth remains. Across time, across cultures, regardless of wealth, intellect, or luck, truth exists.