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From Whence Character


It is a word that is tossed about casually, but with the weight of an anvil, and woe to those who must catch it and try to make sense of it.  Caught up in the idea are every word and action associated with a human being, and yet from that morass we are to come away with a judgment as to whether our values are reflected by another soul, or endangered by it.

Sometimes it seems easy, almost too easy.  Some young men and women are so ensorceled in the fabric of "character," so swaddled in its many layers and truisms that doubt begins to creep into the mind of the beholder.  The phrase "too good to be true" rings with its hollow promise, and a player like Tim Tebow or Knowshon Moreno becomes regarded with mystery, as if we can't know truly who they are, underneath all of those layers.

On the other hand we have the Robert Ayers and Chris Bakers of the world, young men with only the scarcest of rags to cover their modest souls. This threadbare transparency shows us the night which has taken up residence within them, this black serenity which must always live within their souls, and which no amount of time may expunge.

But know that for those of us who seek the truth, the rags and transparency are a blessing.  We can see that the elbows have been patched, that the soles have been worn thin, that the cloak allows water and wind to pass through.  Of course, the darkness passes through as well.

And with it, stars.

To understand the fabric of character, and how a rag of it can clothe as well as a bolt of it, we must first divide it up into two ideas.

The first idea is character as an aspect, that is, character as it applies to everyone. This is the simpler of the two tasks.  The second idea will be to describe the threads that weave together to create GOOD character.

Character as an aspect is described thusly, by the venerable Merriam-Webster:

a: one of the attributes or features that make up and distinguish an individual

c: the complex of mental and ethical traits marking and often individualizing a person

Sigh.  If you love words as I do, you are familiar with the process of divining useful definitions from typical dictionaries.  You will also have multiple dictionaries, especially OLDER ones, which you will refer to in your efforts.  In this instance I see right away a preponderance of verbiage, always a red flag in a definition.  A definition should delimit a concept, with concise edges and essential data, not blur the boundaries with words like "or" and "often".  Often, but not always?  How is that definitive?

First lets strike the "often" from the second part of the "definition, since your ethical and mental traits most certainly do individualize you.  After referring to a few (older) dictionaries, and pondering the concept myself, let us forward another definition, the one afforded us from the Ayn Rand Lexicon:

Character is the moral essence of a man.

Which is to say, character is your self-made identity, expressed by your actions in accordance with your principles.  To further illuminate the idea, consider character to be your identity, except it only subsumes the part of your identity which you shape by choosing, accepting and following through on particular moral values.  And of moral values I am here referring to those values which you choose of your own volition (i.e. not under coercive force), and which have the power to shape the whole of your life, not just a specialized part of it (for example, maintaining your gap may certainly be a value worth pursuing on the football field, in that lone specialized environment, but it falls far short of being a guiding principle in choosing your friends, or in establishing your relationship to government).

Put simply, character is what you are morally, essentially.

I searched in vain for any popularly accepted conception of character that did not fit under this set of limits.  But it still leaves wide open the much more critical issue of determining what constitutes good character.

Above I described character as a woven fabric, consisting of many threads.  I phrased it this way for a reason.  Studying the idea of character made one thing very clear, and that was:  no part of good character can be validated in isolation from the other parts.

What this means is that while you can look at any individual thread of character (and there are, potentially, many such threads), and examine it for the purpose of better understanding it, no individual thread can be validated apart from the whole cloth it constitutes.   This is why a rag of good character is just as potent and valid as a yard;  character doesn't exist in quantity, but only quality.

As to what actually constitutes good character, I will leave it to the community to discuss the individual threads, those shining stars of virtue, at your leisure.   Threads like Honesty, Integrity, Independence, Productivity all deserve substantial attention, and books could be written on each topic.  For this post, I will severely limit myself to discussing the whole cloth of good character itself, as well as briefly touching upon the fundamental action subsumed under that whole cloth as well as briefly covering their antithesis.

Good Character 

If character is your moral essence, and if your morals are the guiding principles meant to further your life, than good character can properly be described as those moral principles which further a good life, i.e. one of happiness.  Within this statement I make a number of metaphysical, epistemological and ethical assumptions in order to claim that happiness is a good barometer for judging your life.  Among the assumptions is the critical metaphysical assumption that reality is the standard by which everything must be consistent.  This is certainly a point that is open to debate, and which a book could be written about.  Since this is not a book, I will go ahead and operate on the metaphysical assumption contained in the Law of Identity, A=A, and leave any debating of this point in the comments.  I caution you:  if you do not agree with this principle (identity) than it would be best to come to terms with that idea before arguing the points in the post, as they are reliant upon it.

To continue, with reality as the standard, the primary principle which subsumes all the others is the idea of rationality, i.e. the non-contradictory use of your mind to identify, pursue, acquire and protect values.  Rationality says simply, that real things must be pursued by real means according to reality.  Reality dictates that a human has a certain nature, and that a pear has a certain nature and that water has a certain nature.  Rationality dictates that a human should eat the pear and drink the water.  No matter how complex the ethical discussion, at its base it will reduce to a discussion of reality vs. fantasy, rationality vs. irrationality.

In looking to acquire players of "good character" the Broncos have put a premium on rationality, on players whose focus is turned outward on reality, and on applying their values on the world around them in the hopes of impacting it enough to feel the reverberations of those values back to them.   To the wayside have fallen those whose attention is turned inwards upon their emotions, whose actions show an unwillingness to act as reality demands, whether that is staying in your assigned gap (integrity), earning your position on the staff (productivity), or uttering truthful statements (honesty).  The process has not been a perfect one, and has oscillated between degrees of both rationality and irrationality, but there can be no doubt about the commitment of energy to acquiring rational players, and of divesting the team of irrational players.

It is also worth noting that, like most men, those that have been acquired or discarded are mixed quotients of rationality and irrationality, swinging like a pendulum between the two extremes.  But good character begins with the  discovery of the damage irrationality can cause, and the search for good character necessarily involves the search for those who expend added vigor in attaining greater heights of rationality, and of sustaining those heights longer.

Rod Smith is an example par excellence of such an upswing.  His moral pendulum has remained rigid in the upper-most regions of high character for so long that  it seems seized, as if it couldn't possibly fall back, ever.  But what keeps it up there is his knowledge that it could fall back, at any time, and that only consistent, virtuous action will keep it there.

And at its root, all virtuous action consists of one fundamental activity.  One single effort can be identified in the way a player plays, practices, or speaks in interviews.

That action is:  Focus.

I am talking here about purposeful alertness.  Many of you have already identified this trait in McDaniels, and I have seen it referred to several times as "detail-oriented," which is a bit inaccurate.  What he is doing specifically is remaining open and mentally alert, even in relatively insignificant circumstances.

Note that focus implies effort.  Compare this to the lackadaisical, out-of-focus drifting that seems to have been the hallmark of the Denver Broncos for several years now.  There was a profoundly disturbing inability to maintain any significant degree of intensity, i.e. focus.

Just like focusing your eyes as a baby, the act of focusing your mind is an acquired skill, and one that must be exercised frequently and regularly.  This does not mean pain, but it does mean struggle.  Great character means, essentially, embracing that struggle through continuous, scrupulous mental effort, in a lifelong commitment.  It is a fundamental struggle based on principle.  And, just like focusing your eyes, it is a struggle that gets easier the longer you do it, until a negligible amount of effort is required to sustain it.  However, it would be a mistake to think that NO effort was required, at any stage.

The identification of Focus as a primary virtuous action, leads also to the identification of its antithesis, the act of evasion.  I am speaking here of mental evasion, of anti-effort, indeed the resentment of the effort required to focus.  Evasion can be anything from ignoring the need for a coaching staff while promoting friends, to making off-the-cuff remarks with no regard for their effect.  Both instances reject the moderate-to-high amounts of effort required to maintain consistency with reality, and both unnecessarily place the onus of grasping reality on someone, anyone, else.

Again it is worth noting that focus is an effort, and evasion is the vacuum which  occupies any moment where focus is not observed, or actively shunned, and that most men swing between the two states in varying degrees of control.  And again, the higher the degree of focus, and the higher the degree of control over that state, the higher the degree of moral character in that person.

Focus as the primary indication of rationality, rationality as the primary indicator of good character.  The idea is a pretty simple one.  The better you use your mind, the better person you will be.  This has no relation to overall intelligence either.  A brute can have just as much moral fortitude as a genius, and vice versa.  What matters is effort.

Take heart in noting the focus with which a player like Robert Ayers addresses his past.  He can recall the details and the emotions.  He addresses it directly without fear.  That is not the act of an evader, of one who has shoved their past into a cloistered recess, to become a cobweb-covered specter that haunts them and breeds a fear so profound that they jump at shadows.  Ayers, and others like him, have used their past as the momentum they need to begin the upward trend in their character.  Denver catches them at their apex.

It will take a certain amount of effort and energy for them to stay there.  But now we know that it is the same effort and energy that will help them stay here, with the Denver Broncos.