“Just think of it as a character builder.” The words rolled around in my head as I drove to yet another meeting that I really didn’t want to attend at all. My mind quickly flashed back to all of those years of being gently prodded by my parents to do things that were necessary, but not fun. It was their way of convincing me that sometimes we have to do things that are unpleasant, or deal with people who are at the very least annoying, in order to become stronger people in the long run.
Our character is made up of qualities that make us unique and different from everyone else. My father once explained it to me as “the way you act when no one’s watching.” It’s easy for someone to be kind and trustworthy when things are going along well and you have an audience. The real test of character is what happens when no one else is holding you accountable. Recently I have noticed that my character must be in dire need of repair; I must be adding on a wing or something. It seems that even the smallest things, such as heavy traffic or a slow checkout line are working to help build my patience. And some days I must just need a heavy dose of humility.
Last week I attempted to quickly sneak through McDonald’s drive thru to pick up some breakfast parfaits for myself and some co-workers. Just as I reached into the back seat for my purse, the harsh reality hit me that it was shut in the trunk of my car. You must realize that I had already wedged my car closely to the pay window and could barely open my door, much less shimmy out of it. But shimmy I did, and managed to open the trunk, grab my purse, squeeze back in and pay my bill. It was then that I realized that another of my co-workers was in the car right behind me, witnessing the whole fiasco. The whole character builder.
Most character builders are a bit more serious and have a longer lasting impact. Your friend says something hurtful and you learn to reign in your feelings rather than lashing out in return. A family member has a serious illness and you learn to channel your anger into something helpful and useful. Your boss requires yet another cumbersome report and you give it your best effort despite your skepticism. You listen to a friend tell the same painful story for the hundredth time because you know that it is cleansing for them to tell it.
Last week I heard a really interesting news spotlight. The company was Charles Schwab. The CEO was discussing one of the strategies that he uses when interviewing potential job candidates. He said that he simply takes the candidate to breakfast. The secret is that he sets up the situation ahead of time with the server, and asks him/her to please mess up the person’s order that he is interviewing. He claims that you can tell a lot about a person’s character by the way they act when someone else makes a mistake. “I do that because I want to see how the person responds,” he tells Bryant. “That will help me understand how they deal with adversity. Are they upset, are they frustrated, or are they understanding? Life is like that, and business is like that. It’s just another way to get a look inside their heart rather than their head.”*
All this is to say that our character is being shaped each and every day. As empty nesters I also feel that it is our duty to help shape the character of those around us that we have a direct impact on. We can use teachable moments to show them how to react when things don’t go our way. How to laugh when we’ve made a mess of things. How to pick up the pieces and create something new when it’s appropriate. How to show respect to others, along with fairness and love. How to be a good citizen. How to make the most out of every situation. Above all, how to act when no one else is watching.