“If there is character, ugliness becomes beauty; if there is none, beauty becomes ugliness.” – Nigerian proverb
One of the books every child in the eighties had to read was Courtesy for Boys and Girls by Hannah Hagan. It was the go-to book for character-building. Our society deemed it proper that cultivating a good character was just as important as developing the intellect. Thus, they had to etch into us the right mannerisms to help us live right, so that our lives would be helpful to others. Building the character of youth was society’s way of helping us build our personal brands.
Sadly, as one philosopher puts it “the theory of books is noble, but its imitation is for the courageous”. Interestingly, not many of us fall into that privileged class of imitators. For some of us, it is because we read to fulfil requirements of the process and never understood that practicing the theory was for our good. Others grasped it precisely in proportion to the pressure that was being exerted on them by influences in their ecosystem; the higher the heaviness, the higher they soared – so long as it was there. Once the influences subdued, they stopped themselves from forging attitudes that would inspire them to put up their best behaviour.
Properly understood, character-building is an evolutionary process aimed at restraining our animal instincts and moulding us into cultured beings that can live in harmony with each other, while fulfilling the highest responsibility of building a better society. It helps us to understand the nature of the self as a distinct entity separate from other selves, but powerful enough to affect everything in life. It involves deep work, but the results empower individuals to stand up against injustices and act in the interest of freedom and fairness, for he or she recognises his or her connection to others.
But what is special about having ‘character’? It is a greater value for flourishing. It learns about truth, to see and utter truth – or create one if need be. In this action, it must be nurtured for it does not come naturally. In its essence, it is progressive. It looks into the future of our humanity and seeks the best that can be. Character is akin to the eyes of man. They empower us to hope so that we can spend our time creating life to be better, if not the best for us. It leads us forward.
That is why the protagonists of character-building undoubtedly believe it is the right way of living, so it should be encouraged. No human being must be subdued by his or her animal instincts. We must always rise above them for our own good. There is too much beauty and delightfulness in life to spend our time surviving when we can live pleasantly. As many advocates would argue, our time is too precious to be wasted looking over our shoulders when we could utilise that same resource to harness our potential and make life delightful for ourselves. A well-built character enables us to build and thrive in any ecosystem.
It is sufficient to say that it is people of character who have built the well-developed societies. And in them one finds many individuals with character, and many more advocating for it all the time. It is not surprising that in his recent commencement speech at Northwestern University, the Illinois Governor, Jay Robert Pritzker, contended that: “Empathy and compassion are evolved states of being. And that they require the mental capacity to step past our most primal urges”. His words remind us that intellectualism is not enough. The time has come for us to work on our attitudes to ensure our animalistic tendencies are quelled for good.
Building our character will bring out the best in us. It will make us kind, humble, patient, respectful, persevering, honest, friendly, grateful and purposeful, among many other virtues. But above all, it will creative, confidence and make us committed in finding solutions to the challenges around us for the good and flourishing of our humanity. We must always remember that it is not enough just to be alive; we must live well and in harmony with all people every day, for a time will come when we will be no more…
Kodwo Brumpon is a partner at Brumpon & Kobla Ltd, a forward-thinking Pan African management consultancy and social impact firm driven by data analytics with a focus on understanding the extraordinary potential and needs of organisations and businesses to help them cultivate synergies that catapult them into their strategic growth and certify their sustainability.
Comments, suggestions, and requests for talks and training should be sent to him at kodwo@brumponand kobla.com