A Personal Lesson in the Importance of Character Development

by Haider on January 16, 2009 · 6 comments

in Character Development

Less than a week before the launch of this site, I was feeling worried that I might not meet my deadline (the one I promised my friend Khalid I will finish the site by. He always insists that I work by fixed dates). I was taking my family (wife and twins) to the Scientific Center for them to meet up with my in-laws, and I was going to meet up with my brother to design this site.

When we arrived at the Scientific Center, I had to go through the parking lot to drop my family off. As I took the ticket going in, I told the ticket man that I’m only dropping my family off, and won’t be parking in the parking lot. When I came to leave, he told me that I would have to pay.

The amount wasn’t much, but I was enraged and lost my temper. I told him that I didn’t park, and won’t be paying. He can call the manager for me to talk to. When he called the manager, he said: “There is someone by the gate who doesn’t want to pay,” without explaining why I didn’t want to pay. I got out of the car to grab the phone off him, but he had put the receiver down by the time I got to the window.

He told me that the manager would pay on my behalf, because he wasn’t going to come down to resolve the issue, and opened the gate for me.

Some might see this as a victory. I got my way, and didn’t have to pay. But considering the principles I had to trample on to get to that point, it really wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t how I should have behaved, if I wanted to uphold my principles.

To clarify what I mean, I should mention some of the principles that I abandoned in this single incident.

The Forgotten Principles

Although the entire incident didn’t last more than five minutes, there were a handful of principles involved. Before I list the principles, I should point out that these aren’t universal principles others want me to uphold, which I’m not entirely convinced about. These are principles that I have come to embrace based on my personal research and convictions.

These aren’t principles that I should uphold out of religious obligation or social conventions. These are principles I want to uphold, given my beliefs and values. They are my principles, and I want to live by them.

  • Reason over emotions: The primary principle that I ignored during this incident is the importance of acting appropriately, without being led by my emotions. I gave up control over my decisions to what I was feeling at the moment, which led to me behaving in a way that’s against my principles
  • Being respectful: Regardless of who I’m talking to, I believe people deserve respect. I certainly didn’t show the ticket man the respect he deserved. I expressed my anger, and was very rude in my behavior
  • Welcoming foreigners: Foreigners don’t usually feel they have rights in a foreign country, especially where the nationals feel superior, and would treat them with disrespect. I don’t like the way foreigners are sometimes treated, and I try to show them that I don’t see a difference between me and them. While I would have been equally enraged if the ticket man was a Kuwaiti, and don’t think I would have behaved any differently, this might not be the way the ticket man saw it. I am sure he still felt like an outcast, who is being disrespected because he’s not from this country
  • Being fair: The ticket man was only doing his job. He didn’t have the authority to decide whether I should pay or not. In fact, if he hadn’t spoken to his manager and let me through, he might have gotten into trouble. That’s not what he deserves, and I shouldn’t expect him to shoulder the responsibility of correcting the policies his superiors place
  • Making others happy: It’s very easy to contribute to the happiness or the misery of others. You can mock someone, or praise him, and the results will be drastically different. I want to contribute to people’s happiness, and this can be done by choosing the right words and the right behavior. I certainly didn’t contribute to the ticket man’s happiness, and he would have been much happier if he hadn’t met me

As can be seen, my behavior contradicted my principles. This is enough to signal a problem that I need to work on. It’s very easy to come up with excuses for why I behaved the way I did. In fact, my default thought pattern was directed towards finding excuses to justify my behavior.

The “Excuses”

I think it’s very easy to look for triggers we can blame for the way we behave:

  • I had a deadline to meet
  • My brother was waiting for me
  • I was stuck in traffic for a long time, going to a place I didn’t want to go to
  • My son was crying and misbehaving
  • The parking policy is irrational because people are being forced to go through the parking lot to get to the doors
  • The ticket man wasn’t cooperating

Who Am I Kidding?

Let’s assume all these excuses are valid: I wanted to act nicely, but the people and circumstances around me pushed me to behave in the way that I behaved.

Where does that leave my principles? Don’t I want to live by them? Is it really enough to say that others led me to abandon the principles I cherish? And when exactly should I be living by my principles, if I’m willing to abandon them under the slightest pressure?

There’s no amount of excuses in the world that can justify me abandoning my principles. Principles are meant to be practiced fully. And if I’m not living by my principles, then there’s an inconsistency I need to resolve.

The Bigger Picture

This incident didn’t simply reveal the potential I have in giving up my principles when I’m under pressure, but that I am consistently acting against my principles in daily life! Simple gestures can signal different meanings. You might have your eyes fixed on your computer screen while others talk to you, when a simple acknowledgment of their presence can give them a sense of respect you would not have expressed otherwise.

I realized how distant I was from the person I want to be, and how I wasn’t fully conscious of my principles in daily life, or how my principles should be put into practice in the first place. What sort of behaviors show others that they are respected? And how can I consistently act in a way that upholds my principles?

This incident was a powerful lesson for me in the importance of character development. I realized the extent to which I have been overlooking this issue.

What Now?

It’s fortunate for me that I am willing to admit when I’m wrong. After passing through the gate I parked my car and went over to the ticket man to apologize for my behavior. But the fact remains that when it comes to showing respect, it isn’t a characteristic that’s fully ingrained in my character. But I want it to be. I want to act consistently regardless of the circumstances surrounding me.

I would like to be aware of the principles I uphold and how to become a person that upholds these principles consistently in daily life.

This is what character development is about, and I’ll be writing a great deal more about this subject to help myself become the person I want to be, and to help others achieve the same goal for themselves.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Eaman January 24, 2009 at 5:24 pm

Faith or belief is what existed in Ur heart (mind) & approved by Ur action. It’s not only by a single action,but by repeated action that becomes a habit. For instance: a lier knows & believes of the goodness of saying the truth. Yet he don’t follow what he believes. Plus he/she hates other liners!
This is what “jihad il nafs” is all abt. god help us all : D

2 Haider January 24, 2009 at 8:31 pm

I don’t believe character development needs to be a struggle. When your heart and mind are aligned, you will not experience any resistance or tension when you put your principles into practice.

But because we don’t make the connection between our principles and our actions, we end up living in contradiction.

A liar does not like being lied to, but he’s not adopting the principle as his own, and is not taking the actions necessary to live by this principle.

3 Anwar January 25, 2009 at 7:31 am

“I don’t believe character development needs to be a struggle. When your heart and mind are aligned, you will not experience any resistance …”

To me, this reads “Character development = Alignment of heart and mind”

If my understanding is correct, I would like to learn more.

By the way, I really like what you’re doing :)

4 Haider January 25, 2009 at 5:12 pm

Dear Anwar,

Thanks for passing by and giving your feedback.

I will hopefully write a post on the “alignment of heart and mind” REAL soon, most likely entitled: “The Roots of True Happiness.” So watch out for that one ;)

Character development INVOLVES the alignment of heart and mind, but it’s not IDENTICAL to it. Some people act contrary to their principles not because it conflicts with what they feel, but simply because they’re unaware of how they should behave in order to put their principles into practice. This is a very important aspect of character development.

5 Anwar January 25, 2009 at 9:54 pm

I totally agree that the ability to recognize the actions that are in line with ones principles is key to character development.

What I was struggling with earlier was whether character development needs to be a struggle.

Let me share how I understand the subject, and you (or others) may tell me if I’m missing anything:

People have principles and they have their actions. When a persons actions contradict his/her principles it’s either because they require more strength to do what is right (to him/her), or its because what they thought was a principle was not really so and that their actions expose their “real” principles. While it may sometimes be a combination of both, I tend to think the latter is the mostly case. Since the example talked about in previous contributions was about lying, it’s application here would be that while one may think s/he carry a principle that truthfulness is a virtue yet continues to lie means that s/he probably doesn’t “really” have that principle.

The struggle…

I believe that people struggle to identify areas where their principles and actions are not aligned. This identification process is not easy, and I believe your main contribution speaks to this matter. Another situation in which people struggle, is when they have identified their “real” principle and want to change it to what they thought it was before it was exposed, the struggle here is a greater one.

I look forward to you upcoming post and I hope I didn’t jump the gun with this contribution.

6 Haider January 26, 2009 at 12:30 am

Anwar, I think it’s only natural to jump the gun in blogs. It’s hard to stick to the actual point of the blog post when the topic it covers is so massive :)

I’d like to make 2 points with respect to what you said:

1-A Missing Factor: I think an important factor which you did not mention in the character development formula (apart from principles and actions) is: human nature. If your principles aren’t compatible with human nature, no matter how hard you try to apply them, you will struggle and your actions won’t match your principles.

Having said that, you *can* have your actions match unnatural principles, but your character will be deformed. For example, racism is not a proper principle. It contains an element of human nature in that we are able to make distinctions. It is unnatural because it’s based on ignorance.

The color of one’s skin doesn’t define his character. You can have someone be completely prejudiced towards people of other races, but they would have to maintain their ignorance and suspend observation in order to dismiss the fact that skin color has nothing to do with character.

Human nature is why a liar can hate being lied to: he doesn’t acknowledge the principle that lying is bad, but human beings have a natural disdain for deception.

2- When I dismissed struggle in character development, I didn’t mean that one will not experience a struggle in developing his character. I meant that it is not a natural state. I don’t believe that there is a natural conflict between mind and heart, that we must always experience the two tugging us in opposite directions.

I would even go so far as to say that “temptation” (an inclination to act in a way contrary to your values, e.g. your moral principles regarding sex) is not a natural state. You can effectively reach a point where you do not experience any inclination to act against your principles.

Temptations arise when you are:

- unaware of your principles
- uphold principles that conflict with your nature
- uphold conflicting principles that develop character contradictions
- have not adjusted your psychological outlook to match your beliefs

I will need several blog posts to cover these topics in greater detail. :)

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