Character is everything, but what is “character”?

Character: “the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing.” (Dictionary.com definition)

Several years ago, a junior at a the church I had attended; preached a sermon on our core values, one of them being “Unshakable Character”. The other values included extravagant generousity, audacious faith, and a few others I cannot recall. Unshakable character was the one that stood out for me and over the years I often pondered over, analyzed and studied myself as well as others to understand in depth what unshakable character really is, what separates good character  from bad, what are the black white and grey areas and how does one truly develop such character. The only definite thing I know about good character is that it’s a process and ever progressing.  Even at this point, while I am finally writing the piece my hands have been itching to write for over a year, the final understanding is somewhat inconclusive.

Two things during the years following that sermon stayed with me for a long time regarding character. They are “Integrity”, and “Christ-likeness”.
INTEGRITY: the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness. (Dictionary.com definition)
Pretty simple to define this word. Integrity is something you either have or you don’t. It isn’t based on situations, moods or convenience.
Christ-likeness however can get seriously complicated. It’s basically, ‘What would Jesus do, say or think?’ Remember that bracelet in that Madea movie? W.W.J.D. ? Something like that, only, easier said that done.

What got me writing this piece is a conversation with an ex, some months ago that left me in complete dismay, disappointment, utter shock, and feeling betrayed and even scared. I’ve known him for 3 years and over the course of 3 years I’ve learned many things about him. To me he was that genuine, sweet, calm and collected, economic and ancient history nut whom I could talk to about anything and everything for up to 7 hours straight. He has never been disrespectful, aggressive or abusive and generally did adorable things like bring me little gifts, go for long walks with me and even play basketball with me at random hours. Our only very obvious mistmatch was that we were unequally yoked. As in, I’m a Christian and him, not so much. This naturally lead to differences in beliefs and our over all values, etc.
I had always known that he wanted to be successful and in leadership but the conversation took a turn unexpectedly and ended with him blurting in his drunkenness,“I love you. You make me happy… but I can’t control you…. I don’t care about happiness, I want power and control. That’s my goal…”
My immediate reaction to this was,“Wuthe Hitler!?” Not to mention some things I disregarded in the past came flooding back like the time when he esteemed Hitler above Ghandi. He believed Hitler was interesting and it intrigued him that he was able to make so many followers, while Ghandi was a dictator and he suppressed and oppressed people. I don’t know too much about Ghandi but it occured to me that my beau might have self control issues and/or outright dispise laws, rules, ethics, and moral values. I also contemplated whether it would be worth mentioning that Hitler had psychological issues and eventually took his own life but never quite accomplished his goal of taking over the world.

For a few weeks that followed I was outraged and sad. It was easy to notice that he was not the only one with such a mindset. This is our modern day soceity: the dog eat dog world, the competitive me – culture, and everything else promoted through the media like power couples worth millions but lacking in morality or spirituality. Everyone, even I, occasionally feel this competitive urge like life is just as race is to the top.
My mind was muddled with so many mixed emotions and I couldn’t comprehend who this man was. He had become an entirely different person in an instant and I realized that I might have been clueless for two years and fallen for lies and deceit. His character, the way he carried himself, and who I believed he truly was, was now tainted. Or maybe I was over reacting to a very general statement made under the influence of alcohol. He wasn’t sober enough to put together coherent sentences anyhow. However, I began again to wonder what really makes a good character and Christ-likeness.
Do you recall in elementary school, the question, “Who is your role model?”
I remember writing papers and journals about my role models several times in different grades throughout elementary school. Each time it was a different family member from my Grandma to my uncles and aunts.

When I started to write this piece I tried to close in the box by referring to people who I met in church and were in ministry. This isn’t to put down Christians, Christianity or people in ministry,  because including myself, we’re Christian because we’re all imperfect people who need a perfect God, Christ. But in all honesty some of the least favourable and least Christ-like people I’ve met were Christians in leadership roles in church. Don’t get me wrong, I have met wonderful Christians also. But for some reason my mind strayed to a key few who have had terrible impacts on my life. A Pastor’s son who spent more time skipping class, getting suspended and drinking behind the school; a visiting pastor who was more of a dictator, completely arrogant and ignorant that he’d assumed judgemental imaginaty situations about many youth in the congregation and unjustly, ruthlessly belittled members of the church without so much as knowing their first names. Then there was gossip central. A crowd of girls in leadership roles, who had no better hobby than to bud their noses into and talk behind the backs of others. Say what you will about cutting church leaders some slack, but I think if they need that slack they aren’t ready to be in leadership but, “the fish stinks from the head.” As a baby Christian during those years, these encounters had left a pretry bad impression upon me, and usually the bad impression tend to stand out and stick a lot longer than the good. Reminiscing on these memories discouraged me very quickly from continuing this piece.
Luckily, just in time I attended the retirement party of one of the best people I have ever had the privelege of knowing.
Mr. Tony D’agostino, alias Dagger, our beloved coach. It was like a 10 year reunion with the most wonderful human beings God had placed on this earth and I felt so nostalgic from being in that atmosphere and around the people. One by one people got up to give their speeches and I kid you not, left me teary eyed at the end of each. I’ve been to many weddings and a few funerals but no speech had ever kept my attention nor stirred any emotions in me. Looking around at the calibur of athletes, students, family members and colleagues of Dagger that were present that night made me realize just how amazing a person he truly is.

Some of what was mentioned in the speeches added to my searching of character.  A teacher mentioned, “Tony has always been a spiritual guy.” His son added the thing about respect and his athletes about encouragement.
On my way home I compared society’s view on power and control vs my coach’s natural ability to lead without ever trying to control or manipulate anyone or anything.

It was character. It was integrity and Christ-likeness. Not to mention he had power, authority and control but through respect and because of who he is.
Was it the inumerable OFSAA medals, the Championships, and titles? Was it the Candian, Interscholastic and Ontario records that were broken by his athletes, the ones he coached and brought up under his watch and mentorship? Was it the number of full scholarships awarded to his athletes and/or the very fact that he produced national and international level athletes? Was it any of the achievements? Heck Yes! But these were only the smaller part of it. They were achievements deserving of respect and recognition. But Dagger was always down to earth, and never egotistic.
Throughout our high school years my teammates and I experienced the best of times and the worst. We came from so many different walks of life and we all had baggage. From eating disorders, annemia, iron dificiencies,  dysfuntional families,  poverty, child abuse, single parent homes to everything in between and all scenarios under heaven were among this crowd. Not to leave out the sitcoms we had among ourselves. And through it all there was Dagger, dragging 20 something of us to and from York U everyday in our big red van, giving us a step above every other school in practice facilities. He took us to many different cities for meets, and to Penn Relays to run against the world’s very best. Opportunities we couldn’t have imagined without Dagger. He listened to our problems, and even helped us through so many. When no one believed in us and when we didn’t believe in ourselves, Dagger didn’t just say with mere words but showed us that we could. He never gave up on any one athlete, whether it be the smallest, or the slowest. He flew down with the athletes to visit their universities and he even brought some of us our first furnitures. Dagger showed a kind of compassion and acceptance that very few people now know how to show. All the while he never expected anything back. Christ does just that. He shows us compassion.
But it wasn’t a fiesta. There were many moments of tough love too. When we were up to no good he made sure to put us in our place. Christ also does that; accepts us the way we are but never leaves us in our low places and mediocrity.
The times crossed my mind of when I was caught with the wrong crowd that was causing a lot of trouble,  and Dagger just shook his head disappointedly as he walked by me that day. I had never felt so guilty in my life. When I went down to the office that afternoon he said one thing to me that still rings in my every time I consider my friendships today. “If you hang around shit for too long, you’re going to start smelling like it.”
I remember I was a little rebel in high school, pulling stupid stunts deliberately to make my mother upset (I have mommy issues, don’t ask). But I never dated anyone because Dagger told us all, “No!” When I spoke to my bestfriend about those days, I realized it wasn’t just me, but we all didn’t want to let Dagger down, we wanted to make him proud. I know that anything I achieved  in high school was because I didn’t want to let Dagger down.
The last really big thing I remember after a really bad year was the pep talk he gave me. I was a little trouble maker from time to time. The little mischievous side used to stop by sometimes and because I often got away with things by just smiling,  sometimes others were at the mercy of my mischief. By that I mean my bestrfriend and a few of my teammates had to jump in to save my behind or got in trouble by association. We laugh about it all now, but I remember the very last time when Dagger pulled me into the office sat me down, and began a pep talk. He had never ever yelled at me but this time his face was pretty serious. I remember those words to this day, “At some point you gotta be honest with yourself, cut the crap,  put all the BS behind you and get your shit together.”
This meant business. I still have days when I have to remind myself of this speech just to get out of bed, get to work or class and keep moving. That’s how powerful Dagger’s words were. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t the words but who they came from.
And last but not least, Dagger is definitely a spiritual man. We all do still remember the huddle. While every other team huddled and blurted out some school cheer, we huddled together and prayed. We prayed together before every single race. I had never been on any other sport team where we prayed before the meet or games. But this was the tradition that was passed on for decades on the Ward track team. He is humble. Never once had Dagger belittled, or discouraged any other team, coach or runners. On the contrary he applauded and celebrated every other victory with just as much pride as those of his own athletes. To quote his teacher, “he checked his ego at the entrance.”
Bottom line Dagger is the most Christ like person I ever knew, but he never once talked about God nor preached a sermon. He lived it out in his life through the way he treated others, through his selflessness, compassion and through his dedication to molding these young vulnerable people into the incredible adults they’ve all turned out to be. He taught us to believe in ourselves and to finish the race, to leave everything on the track.  The team performed because he cared about every individual on the team. Believe it or not, some of his traits stuck and passed onto us as we grew older.

There are no group of people I look up to more than the girls I ran with. The kindest, most selfless and giving ones like Omoye, Leanne and Danielle, or the natural leaders like Lindsay and Cherise. Just like Dagger’s words, Lindsay’s MVP speech taught me time management and study skills, while Cherise’s lecture taught me not to get into destructive relationships with the wrong kind of people.

Ushakable “good” character is one that remains constant and doesn’t conform or sway under pressure. It is selfless, dedicated, disiplined, empathetic, uplifting, humble and shows mercy, forgiveness and unconditional love. Sounds pretty Christ-like to me.

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This is where the power is, in unshakable character. And where  there’s unshakable character you find integrity and unconditional love. This is the longest blog I have ever written and definitely the closest and most personal to me. It is a heartfelt thank you to all the coaches, teachers and mentors in this world who are still commited to the children and dedicated to making their paths straight and bringing out all their potentials. You are awesome, and you make the biggest difference. This is also a call to more people in these roles and outside to become these unshakable characters. The world needs you.

R. A. Douglas

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