Each January, we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., remembering the incredible work he did for peace and equity. We honor this memory with our gifts of service, as we think of his kind nature and eloquent way with words.
Dr. King’s message of hope and unity has been particularly important this past year, with political and racial tensions higher than our nation has seen in decades. His words tug at us, calling to us to remember who we are and what we stand for.
And, I’m drawn to a single line in his infamous I Have a Dream address at the nation’s capital in 1963 where he stated,
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
What a noble, human ideal that all human beings can be judged for who they are and not what they look like. Judged for the “content of their character.”
While it strikes me that we have come just a short distance toward that precious goal in these last 58 years, I can’t help but wonder what Dr. King thought about character. How did he define it and what did he deem the content of one's character?
The dictionary defines character as the distinguishing features, morality, and reputation that make up an individual. More simply, character is an aggregate of an individual’s personality, temperament, and principles all rolled together.
Those pieces make up the “content” of one’s character. But, how do we, or should we, judge it?
As individuals, we look to personality tests, like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and DiSC, to help us understand ourselves better and discover how we work and interact with others. As enrollment professionals, we use standardized measures, such as The Enrollment Management Association’s Character Skills Snapshot, to find context into prospective students and how they might fit into an independent school program.
Why is character important?
A good character leads to a successful life — at home, at school, at work. It helps us develop and maintain relationships. It determines how others see us, or as Dr. King said, judge us. Are we honest? Are we respected? Are we responsible? Do we share values?
Character helps us know ourselves — who we are, what we believe, how we react and relate to others, and how we will respond to situations.
How can we build character?
Our character builds over time with our experiences and associations. It starts when we’re young in our parents’ care, but as Anne Frank writes in her diary, “Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person's character lies in their own hands.”
Ultimately, it comes down to what you believe, what you consume — the books you read, the music you listen to, the TV and movies you watch — and who you associate with.
Watch your thoughts and actions. Be intentional, committed, and accountable. Ask for feedback and put it into action.
By building your character, you build your empathy and integrity. And, one by one, we come closer to the ideal of being judged by “the content of our character” rather than any external appearances.
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