10/28/2005 - ALABAMA VOICES: Character crucial factor in success

ALABAMA VOICES: Character crucial factor in success

October 28, 2005

By Drayton Nabers

What is the most fundamental building block for the quality of life of any individual? What is the most critical ingredient for long-term success of a business enterprise? What is the most essential source for a strong family or a noble state and nation?

Many answers are worth considering: education, health, skills, money, etc. But I think most Americans, upon reflection, would think strong character is more fundamental and critical to quality of life and success than any other single factor.

What about faith? Faith is one of the sources of strong character. Years ago our forebears studied character. They read the Bible and history and literature in terms of character. For them the understanding of character was central to all ethical questions.

Crucial as it is, we do not study character much any more. We do not understand it as previous generations did. We need a rebirth of character consciousness.

We have a character problem in this country. We find it in the boardrooms and in our families. We see it in the casinos, on the Internet and in popular songs. It's there in our prisons. It's in politics and sports. It shows itself in accounting scandals, tax fraud, pornography and teen-age pregnancies.

The basic fact is that we have a deep reservoir of strong character in this country, but it is being drained. It is fit that we be concerned.

What is character? The conventional definition is that it is what we do when no one is looking. That may be the fruit of character, but character is more fundamental. It comes from a root word which means an engraving. The dictionary defines character as a "distinctive mark, impressed, engraved or otherwise formed."

Character is all about traits that live deep within us. They are forged by habits, good and bad, engraved in our hearts and souls by practice. Childhood is the primary stage of life where this forging takes place, but it continues throughout our lives.

Character is not developed merely in the classroom or by instruction. Teaching and platitudes alone do not get the job done. Example is critical. Most importantly, character is developed in practice, by what we do.

The great challenge for us all is how to grow in virtue and to put off our vices.

The permanent, engraved nature of character is well illustrated by President Eisenhower. Biographer Stephen Ambrose made this observation: "By 1952, the year Eisenhower entered politics at age sixty-two, his character was set in concrete. It included qualities of love, honesty, faithfulness, responsibility, modesty, generosity, duty and leadership, along with a hatred of war. These were bedrock."

Character is bedrock. It is about the kind of people we have and will become over time through practice.

Where the great virtues are engraved in our characters we have strong families and communities. We have successful businesses and schools. And this nation, destined to be a shining "city upon a hill," achieves that noble destiny.

Drayton Nabors is chief justice of the state of Alabama and author of a recently published book on character.

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