Originally printed in the Appleton Post Crescent

“The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” This famous quote from former UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden rings true, but how many of us, if honest, actually live it?

My friends would tell you I am a pretty good person. I’m known to perform random acts of kindness daily, generously donate my time and resources, and actively care for the needs of others.

For all of my ’goodness,’ I also know myself. I am prone to wander, justify my errors, and think ugly thoughts. We all do it. We let the clerk’s oversight at the check out counter go unmentioned, call in sick when we’re really just uninterested, or gossip about a friend. None of that is good.

According to Debate.com, 71% of those polled believe people are inherently good. The debate over good and evil has gone on forever. Philosophers like Rousseau and Locke, socialists like Marx, and Psychologist Erich Fromm have long argued that man, by design, is inherently good.

I tend to agree more with King Solomon, considered the wisest man in recorded history. He concluded, “There’s not one totally good person on earth, not one who is truly pure and sinless.”

Statistics show character has rapidly declined over the past 20 years. People exhibit significantly less desirable character traits than even five years ago. Formation of questionable character starts early.

Studies among school children show that 24% of children as young as Kindergarten admit to lying, cheating, and stealing. Seventy-five percent of all high school students admit to cheating regularly, and 90% of middle schoolers admit to copying and plagiarizing. The consensus of students interviewed was why not cheat and steal if you won’t get caught? If you look good, who cares how you do it? Indeed. We live in a society where self-serving ends justify the questionable means. There is no inherent goodness in us.

Most people can quote the golden rule, “Do to others what you would like done to you.” Have we become so accustomed to living without character that the Golden Rule is more tarnished than Bernie Madoff’s audit or a script from the identity theft show, Catfish?

King David, Solomon’s father, was considered a good man. But he knew his own heart and how evil he was. He was a liar, adulterer, murderer and thief. He thought, like the school children, that if his wrongdoings were hidden and no one knew them, they were acceptable. In a confession of his own failings, he wrote, “Lord, you have examined me and know all about me. You know my thoughts before I think them. You know everything I do.”

Yes, character is what we do when no one is looking, but God sees everything. I believe Coach Wooden was also correct when he said, “In pursuit of being the best (person) possible, you should always assume someone is watching and act accordingly.”

Try integrating these five ideas to uphold character in your own life.

  1. Take A Personal Audit. Are you the same person in public as when you are alone? Do you change your persona to fit the situation? Would you act a certain way if your grandmother or boss were watching? Take an honest look at your personal failings and adjust them.
  2. Be Honest. When you make a mistake, don’t justify it – acknowledge it. Do the right thing, apologize if necessary, and change your behavior. Character can be molded with practice.
  3. Phone A Friend. Is there an area you struggle with? Find a trusted mentor and advisor to hold you accountable. When temptation comes your way, get help instead of compromising your character.
  4. Be A Promise Keeper. Follow through. Don’t slander others. Don’t steal, cheat, hate, or lie. Be faithful and when you fail, try again
  5. Read The Operating Manual. The God who created us knows us better than we know ourselves. Why not pick up the instruction Book? Open the Holy Bible to the New Testament. Start with the character training in the Gospel of John. Flip forward two books to Paul’s instructional letter to the Romans. The book of James is another good handbook to learn more about living with character.