When do we refer to a person as a person of character? Is it not when we see consistency of good qualities in such a person. The more exceptional we feel the person is, the more it is based on inner qualities that shine through in how the person acts, especially in difficult times and especially in the face of temptations.  

We know that all human beings, as the mythical stories of many different cultures highlight, are vulnerable to temptation. In other words, all human beings experience life as a challenge to act and live according to a higher order than what we see in animals. A ‘higher order’ would be to behave in a manner that is more than instinctive, informed by reason, inspired by the heart, and congruent with a spiritual and value system of beliefs. It implies living with certain convictions about what is good. The commitment to those convictions or beliefs forms character over time. Even when we refer to the character of a sports team we acknowledge their steadfastness and continued belief in themselves, their team mates, as well as what they as a team aspire to be and to achieve.

Character gives way when convictions or beliefs are eroded. We appreciate character in nations, communities or organisations when we observe a collective pride in how higher standards of humanity is upheld. It includes how people are taking care of each other, how they are able to trust each other, and how they will stand together in the face of adversity. Character in society dwindles when the structure of cohesion crumbles and everyone follows only his own desires and struggles with his own fears and insecurities. The subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, shift that we have observed in recent times, is the shift from convictions with their moral power to personal preferences and the means to create lifestyles according to those preferences.

We are comfortable to talk about values and how they are different for different people. Our values are real and dear to us, but they don’t have a ‘commanding character’. They are exchangeable and they are ours as long as we want them. They don’t bring us to humble acknowledgment of our mortality and submission before a Spiritual Power. They don’t challenge or bother our conscience. They are a framework for actualisation of our own interest.

As we have embraced our freedom and shook off the guilty feelings when venturing into new discoveries, crossing boundaries set by doctrine and religious communities, we have stopped asking ourselves what the purpose of our freedom might be. We do have aspirations, but they are typically first and foremost individual aspirations, focusing on our comfort, pleasure and self-importance.

And yet, with all roads open to us and all the help available to build self-esteem and confidence, if we still need more, there remain a feeling of hollowness and need for a deeper sense of connectedness, peacefulness and meaning. When we follow the news, see the horrors of what people do with their newly found freedom, the many sad occurrences of highly placed people, supposedly leaders, who succumb to their greed and falseness, we could wonder if we have not totally missed the plot as stewards on planet earth. No-one, I believe, truly wants to relive the past and reinstate the mentality of controlled order and imposed blueprints for all of society according to a select few’s interpretations and beliefs. However, I do agree with Rolf Jensen (The Renaissance Society) when he says: The spiritual aspect of humanity is coming back to us. We are in need of deeper foundations if character is still, at all, important to us.

Our dilemma

We are somehow caught between the devil and the deep blue see:  ‘We want character but without conviction; we want strong morality but without the emotional burden of guilt or shame; we want virtue but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist upon it; we want moral community without any limitations to personal freedom. In short, we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.’ (James Hunter)