The American humorist and down home philosopher Will Rogers once said, “So live that you wouldn’t be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip.”
Living up to the values you have set for yourself so that you are not ashamed of what you do is a good way of define moral character and Roger’s test for good character is as good as any.
Families lay the foundation for good character. It is from those closest to us as children—parents mainly, but not only—that we form the basis upon which we build our character. From those who hold us closest (or not), guide us (or not), support us (or not) and love us (or not), we develop the habits of character, good or bad. Without a firm foundation, without life-long habits of doing good and caring about what is right, there will forever be a weakness, like a house with faulty floorboards and misaligned doors.
But weaknesses need not be fatal; they can, with proper attention and correction, be compensated for, shored up and built around. We may forever be bent a little but not even the best of structures is without flaws.
We can’t change our foundation but we can, over time, undo bad habits and develop new ones. This is accomplished by finding people whose character we admire, emulating their good traits and having faith in our ability to do better over time. By believing that the kind of people we are matters we develop the character that we hold in esteem.
Here is a story from China that I enjoy:
An itinerant butcher left his meat on the block when he went to buy lunch. Upon his return he saw someone trying to steal some of the meat.
“What are you doing!” the butcher yelled.
The thief immediately put the meat in his mouth and stood there without moving. Then he said, “If you just leave the meat unattended, it is bound to be stolen. It’s much safer for me to keep it in my mouth like I am doing than to tempt a thief to run away with it.”