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5 Characters in Search of Character
from the ACHS 1999 Annual Meeting in San Diego, California

Michael P. Wolfe, Kappa Delta Pi

Ronald Reagan—You can tell a lot about a fellow's character by his way of eating

A scorpion, being a very poor swimmer, asked a turtle to carry him on his back across a river. "Are you mad?" exclaimed the turtle. "You'll sting me while I'm swimming and I'll drown."

"My dear turtle," laughed the scorpion, "if I were to sting you, you would drown and I would go down with you. Now where is the logic in that?"

"You're right?" cried the turtle. "Hop on!" The scorpion climbed aboard and halfway across the river gave the turtle a mighty sting. As they both sank to the bottom, the turtle resignedly said:

"Do you mind if I ask you something? You said there'd be no logic in your stinging me. Why did you do it?"

"It has nothing to do with logic," the drowning scorpion sadly replied. "It's just my character."


Each person on this panel is indeed a character in search of character. We all face the same tasks of human development and must find ways to deal with the same predictable crises of adult life--leaving home, establishing an identity distinct from our parents, developing the capacity for relationships, finding the proper direction in life, making commitments, then rebounding from failures, celebrating successes, and facing midlife under the shadow of our increasing mortality.

Each of us has a characteristic style in which we attack the tasks of human development in developing our own style. Some of us take a series of cautious planned steps forward, then one or two back, always minimizing risk. Others thrive on setting up sink-or-swim situations: Watch me, I can do it! We all know people who seem to live by accident, waiting for life to happen to them and reacting only when they absolutely must. Still others appear to be changing dramatically, but it is all an act, a series of one-night stands, perhaps before enthusiastic audiences, but serving only to mask the essential fear of confronting the real "me" of childhood frustrations.

This characteristic mode of reacting to "the changes and challenges of this mortal life" is a person's step-style.

Character affects us all as an essential ingredient in how we work, play, and deal with other people.

Sow an act, and you reap a habit. 

Sow a habit, and you reap a character.

Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.

—Charles Read, 1814-1884

The words character, morality, ethics, commendable personal qualities are used in all honor society rituals. So - does anyone here actually measure this?

Perhaps a psychiatrist can determine character through reading a patient's eyes and voice.

One can build a picture of a person's character on evidence culled from interviewing 30-40 people who have known the individual at different stages of life-a parent, an aunt, peers, a rival sibling, significant teacher, a coach, first wife, co-workers. Then perceptions can be compared. Even after this involved process, few know the whole story.

Perhaps we are a collection of selves--added or altered or outgrown at different stages of life. We also may come from different subcultures that can imprint a character. Religion, poverty level, race, handicapping conditions are determining factors as well.

The study of character, as I see it, involves placing the person in his subculture, then studying his development through each stage of his life, looking for pivotal turning points, and marking what has changed and what remains repetitious or inflexible about his behavior. These important threads of experience form patterns of behavior. In judging character, one can never be sure the judgment is 100% accurate.

The root of the word "character" is the Greek word for engraving. As applied to human beings, it refers to the enduring marks left by life that sets one apart as an individual. Commonly, distinctive marks of character are determined by parental and religious imprinting, by a child's early interactions with siblings, peers at school, and authority figures. The manners of one's social class and the soil in which one grows up often remain indelible, and certain teachers and coaches or books and ideas may leave a lasting impression. Character is also marked by where a person stood at the great divides in his or her nation's history. Also important is how many of the passages of adult life have been met and mastered, and how someone deals with failures.

Inborn temperament also influences the way people turn out. Certain broad characteristics of one's temperament—the tendency to be sociable or withdrawn, optimistic or depressive, open to change or risk or given to following rules and staying within safe bounds— now appear, from studies of identical twins raised apart, to be profoundly influenced by heredity. But the individual who finds himself handicapped by a trait such as stubbornness or an aversion to risk can go a long way toward teaching himself more constructive ways to behave.

"Character consists of operative values, values in action. We progress in our character, as a value becomes a virtue, a reliable inner disposition to respond to situations in a morally good way. Character so conceived has 3 interrelated parts: moral knowing, moral feeling, and moral behaving. Good character consists of knowing the good, desiring the good, and doing the good—habits of the mind, habits of the heart, and habits of action. All three are necessary for leading a moral life; all three make up moral maturity." 

As John Luther has observed: "Good character is more to be praised than outstanding talent. Most talents are, to some extend, a gift. Good character, by contrast, is not given to us. We have to build it piece by piece - by thought, choice, courage, and self-determination."


Cufaude, J. (1999, January). The character of your leadership, Association Management, p. 40.

Heslep, R. D. (1995). Moral education for Americans. Westport, CT: Praeger

Licona, T. (1991). Educating for character: How our schools can teach respect and responsibility. New York: Bantam Books. 

Sheehy, C. (1988). Character. New York, NY: Wm. Morrow & Co., Inc.

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