When I published a memoir titled The Right Kind of Pride in 2014, my goal was twofold: to write about the journey that my late wife and I shared through cancer survivorship, and to share some of the things we learned along the way.
Eight years of dealing with the physical and psychological effects of medical treatments, surgeries, chemotherapy and its side effects is enough to test the mettle of anyone. Toss in the emotional components of dealing with medical scheduling and recovery, insurance premiums and bills, financial changes and losses, and the whole thing gets overwhelming in a hurry.
During those years of dealing with cancer and remission, work and family challenges, I kept sensing that there was a message in it all.
That’s the other reason I wrote The Right Kind of Pride. I learned that taking care of business in the face of a crisis comes down to three critical components. These are:
Character: the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.
Caregiving: the activity or profession of regularly looking after a child or a sick, elderly, or disabled person.
Community: a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.
To address how understanding these three factors helps one through a crisis, we’ll begin with the subject of character, and what that means to each individual.
Character is not a fixed trait
We often view “character” as a fixed quality in a person. But people respond to crisis in different ways. Some grow resolute, facing whatever comes their way with what seems like determination and courage. Others appear frightened or worried at the onset of bad news. There is no real predicting how someone will react to a crisis. Sometimes a seemingly strong person reacts with fear. At other times a seemingly timid person responds with great strength.
Character can even shift with age. Many character traits are subject to change over the years, especially as stress or life changes affect the emotional bottom line. Character can even radically shift within minutes if shocking new arrives. The death of a parent, a spouse or a friend. The birth of a child. All sorts of events, good and bad, affect how character is held or expressed in a given person.
That’s why it is important to understand the nature of “character,” and how to support it in yourself or the people around you.
We might like to assume that character is the foundation that carries us through all kinds of tests. We speak of a person with “solid character” almost like they’re a piece of granite able to withstand all sorts of conditions. Yet if you’re in a position of helping another person get through a test of some sort, it is vital not to assume how they’re feeling, or even trust what they’re telling you at times. Most people don’t like to show or share their fears.
That is why it is important to be patient when it comes to placing expectations on others during times of crisis. Some want to avoid attention or engage in denial, wishing it would all go away. Others want to tell the world what’s going on in their lives, as if that alone could cure the problem. Most of us fall somewhere in between or run from one end of the spectrum to another.
Out of character
If someone responds in a way that seems “out of character” for them, it is clear they are trying to process whatever news or stress they are experiencing. Even good news can be a source of stress to a cancer or heart patient used to hearing nothing but frightening words about their condition. It is hard to trust good news because we don’t like to let our guard down in case something bad is about to happen again.
That puts us into a state of mind where character, “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual,” needs to be considered a tool for monitoring the emotional health of anyone facing a crisis. There really is no such thing as behaving “out of character” when we think about it. No one on this earth possesses a permanently rigid nature. Nor should we.
It is what it is
Obviously it’s desirable to stand strong and deal with necessary actions as they arrive. My late wife and I treated medical regimens with a brand of objectivity. We compartmentalized the cancer and its treatments by saying, “It is what it is.” In other words, let’s not fool ourselves or try to avoid medical advice that might be hard to hear, much less endure. But if you put that practical activity in its place, it is much easier to support the character or the person or person’s involved.
Being able to say “It is what it is” provides a clear focus on the most difficult aspect of life in the moment. That’s at least a degree of control, and knowing the truth and having a plan to follow takes pressure off the character of a person. Then the mental and emotional aspects can be addressed on their own terms.
Character on the line
The same holds true for many circumstances in life. A business or other venture has a “character” of its own. Applying these same principles; identifying the central challenge, categorizing the necessary response, and setting aside conflicting emotional, competitive or selfish aims to address problems is vital in facing life or business challenges. That is how to manage character as a rule.
Despite all our best efforts, there are often selfish aims at work behind the scenes of everyone involved in a crisis. Our primal instincts are to protect our own instincts. Fatigue and stress, fear and self-doubt all work to undermine our character when facing our own crisis or helping someone else face get through difficulties.
The important thing in understanding character is that it is the cumulative experience in a person’s life their character is built upon, including weak moments and strong. The key to supporting the character of an individual, a team or an organization is to identify common traits of belief, hope, determination and goals, then relate those back to the character of those involved.
Asking questions to gain answers
That means asking questions in order to gain answers about how people feel about their own character. These don’t need to be probing psychological ventures. A simple question such as “How are you feeling about this?” defines the person’s character in the moment. That’s what you need to know first. In what mental or emotional state are the people involved?
When I first found out that my wife had cancer all those years ago, a longtime friend and coach called me on the phone with a message of encouragement. “Your whole life is a preparation for this,” he told me.
That was his way of saying that I’d faced adversity before. Dealing with stress. Managing emotions. Setting near-term objectives. Reaching goals, however fluid they may be.
Every person on this planet has a foundation of their own from which to build and maintain character. Helping others do the same in times of crisis is one of the highest levels of compassionate behavior in the human sphere.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF ABOUT CHARACTER.
- What are some of the most formative events in my life?
- When were some of the times I was required to respond to crisis?
- What do I consider some of my most important character traits?
- How do I measure ‘character’ in others?
- Why do I value character in myself and other people?
I’d be interested in hearing some of your responses to these questions and would like to post some (named anonymous, your choice) to this blog.
Send your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org. Your answers if you choose will posted anonymously. We can all learn from each other if we share.