Monday, April 14, 2014

On Valuing Character and Valuing Everyone

I gave a stranger two dollars for bus fare the other day. It was such a simple act, but it meant so much to me. And, I am sure, him. He was gushing with his appreciation of me. I told him, "I would want someone to do the same thing for me, so I am glad for the opportunity to help." I wanted nothing but the chance to help someone out. After I did that, though, it came back to me, as good deeds so often do. A girl who probably would never have talked to me before told me that the bus I had wanted to catch was actually a different bus, therefore enabling me to get where I wanted to go. Another woman actually offered me money for taxi fare when I thought it wasn't going to be the right bus. All I could do, when my brain wasn't busily engaged with thinking of how to get to my destination, was just stand back and mentally smile. The chain of people helping people was just too beautiful.

I have been thinking about the topic of moral strength lately. At the Jewish museum where I volunteer, there was a film about an island in Greece where the residents had sheltered Jewish residents during the Holocaust. While 85% of the Jews in Greece perished during the Holocaust, not a single one of them did in that island. Why? Because the citizens of that island simply wanted to do what was right. At no gain to them and at great cost, they sheltered the Jews. They had moral strength - the ability to do what is right even when it's not popular. They had character in spades.

I was thinking about all this when I stumbled upon Kari Wagner-Peck's wonderful article in the Huffington Post, "

I Am the Author of the Open Letter to Chuck Klosterman Regarding the R-word

A popular writer made comments using the word "retarded" as an insult. When called out on it, the writer did something most unusual - he actually took responsibility for them. Along with a very sincere apology and complete claim of blame, he donated $25,000 to an organization that works with people who have intellectual disabilities.

Having no gain and at the peril of his own embarassment this writer took responsibility for his words in a big way. And in doing so he demonstrated a moral strength and character that was beyond huge and is VERY uncommon. 

Wagner-Peck, in discussing this, talks about how nice it would be if we as a society put more value and emphasis on character than on what kind of car you drive or what you do for a living. 

As a society we are very far from this - but it doesn't mean we can't work towards it. 

If our society valued character over material traits, then everyone could play with an evening playing field - Down Syndrome, autism, people with less financial means, etc. That would truly be a wonderful world. 

This resonates deeply with me because I have spent my life comparing myself by sign posts and "milestones" that I intellectually know are/were meaningless but nevertheless having been so thoroughly enculturated/incoculated with this culture sometimes find it hard not to measure myself up by. The last few months I 've been challenging myself to find other ways to measure myself by. A job, a driver's license, a significant other, even silly things like drinking or whatever? No, I don't have any of those. But character? I've got character in spades. And if what she writes is true... If we can ever get to a place in our culture where we value character more than meaningless trifles and achievement based titles.... than not only would the world be far more an accessible place for everyone... but everyone would have the opportunity to be valued! And their value would come from something that would actually make the world a better place, not just more "stuff."  If I used that metric to value myself... Wow. What could I accomplish if I used that metric to value myself - if we ALL used it to value each other?

When I was in college, the financial aid office had a huge poster that listed several milestones of most people's lives in an attempt to advertise something. What it was advertising was not relevant to me. But what they USED to advertise it was very relevant. The poster was implying in the way it was set up that these things - first kiss, first date, driver's license, and I forget what else - were so normal that there could not possibly be any other way. Almost every facet of our society does the same. I would be in that office waiting in line for something, and I'd see that poster. Without being able to help it, I would time and time again measure myself up against it. Of course, I always came up short. I never once left that office without my heart being broken in a million pieces, and it had nothing to do with the financial aid I was or wasn't getting. 

It's so hard not to get wrapped up in a society that at every turn and in every action, in every advertisement and every TV show, values people that achieve things. Very specific things. But to value someone simply on how they treat others? That's huge. Maybe we could all start to like ourselves a lot more if we just valued ourselves based on how we treated others. That would take a lot of moral strength - but it's worth it. 

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