When you’re forced to go without something, you really begin to value and appreciate it. That’s true with food, water and shelter, but also with character.
It’s my job to follow every punch and counterpunch, every eruption and disruption of this year’s presidential campaign, and lately I’ve begun to think I deserve combat pay.
I’m part of that community of voters — clocking in, officially, according to polls, at about 20 percent of the electorate but possibly even larger — that doesn’t support either of the two major candidates for president.
One reason is that, as should be clear to all Americans by now, each one of these individuals is at least a quart low on character. I have no idea whether either would be a good leader. But, after months of watching them and listening to them, I am fairly sure by now that neither is a person of good character.
In recent years, I’ve found myself thinking less about politics and world affairs and more about human qualities. Blame it on parenthood. As a father, I don’t care if my children become president; that seems like a goal that requires you to sell off chunks of yourself, one by one, until you realize it. However, I do care that my kids grow up to have good character. For me, that’s the most important thing.
In my book, character is about having integrity, being honest and remaining loyal. It’s about thinking of others, and doing the right thing even when it’s difficult. And it’s having the courage and strength to defend your values and principles, even when no one is looking or criticism rains down upon you.
When I asked my wife for her own list of what makes for good character, she echoed some of my items but added another.
“Humility,” she said. “You have to be humble.”
I like that. There is something beautiful about thinking of yourself as small, next to those things that are enormous such as your family, your country, and your God.
An old friend who I’ve known for nearly 30 years — since college — is in the character building business. As the former CEO of Girl Scouts USA, Anna Maria Chavez supervised a staff of more than 400 people and ran an organization with more than 3 million members.
When I told her what I was working on, she told me that her favorite quote about character was from a civil rights leader who exemplified it. And she sent it along:
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience,” said Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy conceived of it as the willingness of the few to “brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society.”
What both these great men understood is that character isn’t cheap, and that it doesn’t come easy.
In fact, Chavez doesn’t think it can even be taught. You either have it, or you don’t.
“I am convinced that you can’t instill good character,” she told me. “You can try to model it to young people but ultimately we are all born with the DNA of knowing what is right or wrong, good or bad.”
Chavez offered an interesting metaphor:
“You have to make deposits into your character bank every day, year in and year out,” she said. “No one can fill up the character reservoir for you. And you are the only one that can deplete your character account by your acts of omission or submission.”
It’s a life lesson that Chavez is trying to share with the next generation of leaders — and worshippers.
“As a Catholic, I teach my Sunday school kids that, as Christians we must model our behavior after Jesus and even he was persecuted for defending the weak and that we must follow his divine example.”
Chavez’ verse of choice is Matthew 7:13: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.”
Hmp. I don’t know. Entering through the narrow gate doesn’t sound easy. But then, that’s the point.
Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group, a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, a columnist for the Daily Beast, author of “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano” (Bantam), and the editor of MOSH OPINIONS — the opinion page of the multi-platform digital media company MOSH.US.