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We often discuss the need to build character when we think about taking care of young people. While children and youth certainly need to develop habits early on, what does it mean to shape our character as adults?
It often feels easy to see how other people need to adjust their character. We can see how even a few powerful people’s deplorable qualities can result in the suffering of many and how the shortcomings of people around us affect our lives. Aside from the obvious need for change, our character has a significant impact on the people around us.
It is easy to look at what we hope others will change, but each of us has the most control over our internal growth. The Baha’i writings and the teachings of many other faiths encourage individuals to look to their own weaknesses and work on those, rather than focusing on others.
As Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith wrote: “O Son of Man! Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner. Shouldst thou transgress this command, accursed wouldst thou be, and to this I bear witness.”
To reshape our character requires many things. Some tools that I’ve found can be helpful when trying to bring about intentional change are the following:
- Know Yourself and Recognizing Your Capacity for Good.
To best understand what parts of your character need to be strengthened or healed, you have to reach a certain level of self-awareness. When I’ve gone long periods without pushing myself to reflect on what I need to change, I’ve noticed internal growth can easily slow or even halt. As a result, I might operate on autopilot and accidentally hurt or offend someone through my words or actions. Other times, I just feel stagnant. That’s when I realize my energy could be directed towards improving the world around me.
As Baha’u’llah wrote:
Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself? Out of the essence of knowledge I gave thee being, why seekest thou enlightenment from anyone beside Me? Out of the clay of love I molded thee, how dost thou busy thyself with another? Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.
In my process of continually bettering my character, I’ve realized how essential it is to believe human beings have the capacity for good. If I thought that humans are only their most animalistic tendencies, there would be no use in trying to become better. Not only can we rise above our lower nature, but we actually have divinity within us.
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- Create Clear Standards for Your Character.
In addition to being aware of the character traits you want to develop, it’s hard to improve l if you don’t have a clear goal.
We can look to one another for inspiration. While none of us are perfect, we can learn from one another and grow our capabilities through meaningful conversations about overcoming internal barriers and taking action. We can also seek spiritual guidance to provide an outline for our internal goals.
As a Baha’i, I look to the example of Abdul-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah and one of the central figures in the history of the Baha’i Faith. Baha’is look to his life of service and pure character as a model of how to live. Abdu’l-Baha wrote: “I beg of God that thou wilt day by day increase the purity of thy heart, the cheerfulness of thy soul, the light of thy insight and the search for Truth.”
- Reflect On Your Progress
While it would be amazing to think that we can simply gather our thoughts, recognize an internal goal, and then accomplish it, things are not usually so simple. Our world continually tests us with new challenges, and we are always at risk for regressing. So, while it would be nice to cross goals off of our list, when it comes to protecting the integrity of our character, the Baha’i writings suggest we continue to reassess how far we’ve come:
Every day, in the morning when arising you should compare today with yesterday and see in what condition you are. If you see your belief is stronger and your heart more occupied with God and your love increased and your freedom from the world greater, then thank God and ask for the increase of these qualities. You must begin to pray and repent for all that you have done which is wrong and you must implore and ask for help and assistance that you may become better than yesterday so that you may continue to make progress.
These are just a few of the tools I use to hold myself accountable for developing a good character. As adults, shaping our character can be a challenge, but it’s not impossible if we try our best. If we use the tools we have carefully, we can not only change ourselves, but we can also support each other as we learn and improve who we are and how we show up in our families, with our friends, and in our communities.