"I have often thought that the best way to define a man's character would be to seek out the particular mental and moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside that speaks and says, 'This the real me!'" -- psychologist William James, in a letter to his wife, Alice, 1878.
In times like these, of national stress and turmoil, we hear talk about "courage" and "character." Sometimes we associate these words with acts of exceptional valor and bravery: the firefighter who dashes into a burning home to save a child, the peaceful protesters who risked their lives to occupy Cairo in order to confront a brutal regime. Surely these are examples of courage and character.
But character is not necessarily limited to extraordinary feats of daring or selflessness. Rather, character is also reflected in the everyday choices we make about how we live our lives. In that sense, each and every one of us is capable of being a person of character and courage. As William James suggests, character reflects authenticity: a congruence between our deeply held beliefs and our actions. When we act with character, we make decisions and choices that -- consciously or unconsciously -- are consistent with the following questions:
- What are my most important priorities?
- What values do I stand for?
The current firestorm that was triggered by the syndicated radio bully Rush Limbaugh's vicious slandering of Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University law student, who spoke publicly in favor of women's reproductive rights, cast a bright light on the major leaders we read about every day, including those who are currently vying to be president of this challenged and conflicted country for the next four years. I have read about and listened to their various responses. Here they are:
- Barack Obama: Called Ms. Fluke personally to thank her for standing up for her beliefs and said her parents should be proud of her. Later said he would not want his daughters subjected to that.
- Mitt Romney: Said "those are not the words I would have chosen, that's all I'm going to say."
- Rick Santorum: Said Limbaugh's remarks were "absurd."
Reflect on the above for a moment, then ask yourself the following questions:
- Which of these men would you prefer to have "watching your back" in a time of crisis?
- Which of the above men would you trust to go toe-to-toe with a brutal dictator?
- Which of the above men best meet William James' definition of character: to be able to look within and hear that voice which says "This is the real me!"
- Which of the above strikes you as a phony?