I want to tell you two stories that changed my life. Both of them are about swearing.
During gym class my freshman year in high school we were running around an outdoor field. For some reason, my friend John thought it would be funny to knock me down. I landed hard on my back and it hurt.
I was mad. That white hot rage came bubbling up inside of me and I let it go. I jumped up and chased after him yelling as loud as I could. To quote the best Christmas movie ever, “In the heat of battle, [I] wove a tapestry of obscenity, that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.”
I think it hurt me more than he intended judging by the look of surprise on his face when I came boiling up off the turf. After I had cooled off, his shocked face still hung in my mind. That expression made me realize I didn’t like the person I was when anger consumed me and those words came out of me. John was a good friend to me. Even if knocking me down hurt he didn’t deserve that kind of response. I decided I would do what I could to control my emotions rather than let them control me.
Fast forward to my senior year in high school. I tried out for and made the varsity basketball team. I wasn’t very good. All I really had going for me was speed and athleticism. But we were a tiny school so they took me on. I didn’t play much. But being on the team exposed me to a different crowd than I normally hung out with. One of those guys was Paul.
Now, I never minded much when people swore around me. It was impossible to avoid where I grew up. And I certainly didn’t think less of anyone who used those words. I just chose not to use them myself.
I say this because Paul had a potty mouth. Actually, to say he had a potty mouth was putting it mildly. To quote again from A Christmas Story, “He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master.” Paul was also very animated when he talked. His cussing combined with excessive hand gestures were, for some reason, hilarious to me. One of those things where you know you shouldn’t be laughing but you can’t help yourself.
One day Paul was off on a tirade about something. One of our other friends, George, also happened to be around. George knew me pretty well. We had been on the track team together for most of high school. He knew a little bit about my beliefs although we had never talked about them. We had never talked about my views on profanity.
For that reason, I was genuinely surprised when, as the group broke up, George quietly took Paul by the arm and asked him not to swear around me. It was quick and there weren’t many words spoken. They were just loud enough that I could barely catch the meaning.
I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone these stories. I tell them now because these were formative experiences for me. They helped me understand my own character and gave me some insight into how it became what it is.
What is Character?
I think the biggest misconception we have about character is that it is the same thing as personality. This is so common that many people even use these two words interchangeably. Even the official definitions of the two words are fuzzy. But in order for us to really understand ourselves and how we can change our character, we need to make a clear distinction. So I’m drawing a line between them.
First, let’s talk personality. Here is the definition we are going to use. Your personality consists of the methods you use to perceive and interact with the world around you. The most widely agreed upon attributes of personality, based on years worth of research, are the Big 5. They are extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. If you’re interested in learning more about your personality try the tests available here.
You’ll notice that nowhere in this list is anything said about patience, or grit, or kindness. That is because your character is independent of your personality. Take honesty for example. Can you be an honest introvert? How about an honest extrovert? An angry introvert? An angry extrovert? This is the thing that most people confuse. Character is not the method, rather it is the message that you send to the world about who you are.
If you want an example of method versus message, think of the ways that we communicate as human beings. We can communicate by speaking, by gesture and body language, or by written word. Each of these methods can carry any kind of message. If I am angry you can tell by my tone of voice, how I’m standing, or the passive aggressive emails that I send the entire office because someone ate my lunch out of the fridge.
Methods don’t change much. Unless we develop some sort of telepathy, we’re pretty much stuck with our verbal, non-verbal, and written forms of communication. The same is true of our personality. It doesn’t usually change drastically over the course of our lives. I’m not saying that we can’t change aspects of our personality. Only that it doesn’t change often and it doesn’t change easily.
Messages can vary widely from person to person or even with the same person on a different day or in a different setting. The same is true of our character traits. To say that someone has a certain character trait only means that they have consistently demonstrated that trait over a certain period of time and in different circumstances. You wouldn’t call a person honest if they only told the truth on Tuesdays to their poker buddies. An honest person tells the truth all the time no matter the setting. At the same time, you wouldn’t call a normally calm person a hot head because you saw them get angry once.
So now that we have a solid definition of what character is, why should we be actively developing it.
Why develop your character?
We’re not talking about why you should be a good person. Or how integrity can bless your life and career. We’re not going to talk about marshmallow tests and patience and how they correlate to success later in life. Exploring individual character traits is what we’ll be doing for the rest of this year.
There is one simple reason for why you should be putting deliberate and consistent effort into developing your character. If you don’t actively shape your character it will be shaped for you. Let me say that again a little louder.If you don’t actively shape your character it will be shaped for you.
In that basketball locker room, it would have been easy for me to conform to my environment. With swearing all around me, it would have been easy to slip back into it. I wonder what George would have thought of me then. It was easy to get angry when someone hurt me. Even if it was just a good-natured prank. But if I reacted with rage every time he did something I didn’t like would John still be my friend?
We all act differently in different crowds and in different locations. At work, most people think I am quiet. My family knows that I have a penchant for the ridiculous. Like doing funny dance moves 1these hips don’t lie or keeping a framed photo of a baby orangutan above my desk.2He makes me happy alright! Don’t judge me.
We can’t always control where we spend our time and who we spend it with. But adverse circumstances does not absolve us from responsibility. They can certainly make it harder to choose. Indeed the odds may seem insurmountable. But inaction will always be as much a choice as action. Going with the flow is a choice. Sinking to the level of your circumstances is a choice. It’s the easy choice. Doing something, rising above and resisting the flow is difficult. But wouldn’t you rather be in control?
Life throws a wide array of situations at us but in the end, we choose who we want to be.
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