What really ‘builds’ character?


“My ability to survive personal crises is really a mark of the character of my people. Individually and collectively, we react with a tenacity that allows us again and again to bounce back from adversity.”

-Chief Wilma Mankiller, from A Treasury of Women’s Quotations, collection by Carolyn Warner

When, as kids, we complained about a tough and tedious task on the family farm, my dad always had one assurance. “It builds character.”

It is interesting to note that the dictionary defines character as the “complex of mental and ethical traits marking a person, group or nation.” Character is also defined as “moral excellence and firmness.”

Farmers should certainly be the most excellent and firm bunch in all the world, all things considered.

I’ve given a whole lot of thought to this thing we call character. To me, a person of great character is one who treats with graciousness those around him, and who can keep smiling and swinging at the pitches life throws his way no matter what.

Abigail Van Buren once said, “The best index to a person’s character is how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and how he treats people who can’t fight back.” Well said.

A German proverb is also worth sharing: When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost.

Those suffering shine. I recently read an article written by volunteer hospice workers, who say that as life reaches its closing days for those who are suffering terribly, character shines through, often times more vibrantly than it is ever allowed to shine in our hurried pace of everyday life. Vitality is lost, all hope for recovery is bid farewell, plans long laid are now laid aside. But becoming ever clearer is that inner person, the character that was built along each step of life’s way, and it is a pleasure to see if we only take the time to recognize it.

One nurse described a man who had been a tough, hard-working man all his life. He had worked cattle and horses and battled the elements and adverse conditions on the Western plains all his life, rarely taking the time for a day off. She said he became more and more respectful of what she did for a living, saying maybe he had never done much of anything after all.

“I assured him the world wouldn’t be quite the same place without all that he had done,” she said. He simply smiled and said, “I sure did like growing things. With the help of God and irrigation, we did all right.”

To be able to look back on a life of hard work and good luck with a smile is partly a sign of good character.

As Fannie Herron Wingate said, “True greatness lies not always in the winning of worldly fame, nor doing our best spurred on by the cheers and plaudits that follow our name. But he who can face with a cheery grace the everyday of life, with its petty things that rasp and sting, is a hero in the strife.”


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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, and three grandchildren.