This idea has deep roots in Greek philosophy. A more contemporary source is Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt celebrated the strenuous life. He claimed that with “steadfast resolution” you can overcome a thousand obstacles and endure a thousand defeats. He concluded, “the one indispensable requisite is character — character that does and dares as well as endures, character that is active in the performance of virtue” and firm in the refusal of vice.
These are inspiring words for youth embarking on life’s journey. But once the euphoria of graduation fades, we might wonder whether any of it is true.
Contemporary psychology is skeptical about character. People are often victims of circumstance. We do not behave consistently. We change our allegiances. We duck responsibility. We rationalize bad behavior.
One name for this skepticism is “situationism.” Situationism suggests that as social beings, we mold ourselves to social situations. Consider, for example, the notorious Stanford prison experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo. When good people are thrown into extreme situations they do terrible things. Zimbardo concluded, “ordinary people can be seduced or initiated into engaging in evil deeds.”
Common sense confirms the power of the situation. At work we behave one way. At home we behave differently. People do things at parties that they don’t do at church.
This does not mean, however, that we should give up on character. Rather, it means we should take care about the situations we encounter. Avoid situations that encourage vicious behavior. Create ethical organizations. And reform corrupting social structures.
We should also admit the complexity of living well. Each situation is unique. We get confused about what matters most. There are conflicts between short-term and long-term interests. Loyalty conflicts with honesty. A variety of other dilemmas confront us.
Flexibility and responsiveness are often as important as steadfast resolution. A ram-rod straight paragon of virtue can be a real pain. There is a time for moral heroism. There is also a time to relax and go with the flow. Character is not simply an anchor that holds you in place. It is also nimble persistence, tenacity and energy. It is the will to keep going despite loss and failure. It is resilient and agile, as well as steady and stalwart.
The challenge of life is knowing when to stand firm and when to let go. To learn this takes a lifetime of diligent practice. You will never reach perfection. You will make mistakes. You will chalk up losses along the way.
One truth about character seems obvious. It results from education and daily practice. Human beings are not born good or evil. Character is developed through the whole of life. That’s why ongoing education is essential. No one is born knowing how to live well. Nor are people born knowing how to play basketball or music. But if you find the right teachers and practice hard, you can learn these things.
You will never win every game. Nor will you hit every note exactly right. Character is the determination to keep trying. The athletes and artists of life keep working. They study their heroes. They seek advice. They are relentless in their pursuit of perfection. But they are also humble and compassionate.
No life is perfect, especially not our own. We all make mistakes. We all need forgiveness. And we need friends who lift us up and push us higher. The truth is that we can live better if we keep at it and if we work together.
This bit of wisdom is old as Aristotle. He taught that lifelong happiness is different from the exuberant joy of life’s sweetest days. Lasting happiness is built upon a foundation of persistent habits. It results from constant practice and patient work. It depends upon nurturing friendships and good social systems. It is difficult to live well, but not impossible.
Character is revealed in times of crisis. But it is developed through daily effort.