Monday, October 30, 2017

Character: why don’t we talk about it more?

What now?
This morning a Quora comment about John McCain’s service and time as a POW impressed me. (posted below). For five and a half years, under the most horrendous circumstances, Senator McCain clearly demonstrated his character. He deserves honor and respect from all US citizens, regardless of political party.

Thinking about him, makes me contemplate my own character. Every week for almost seven years my friend Pat and I have shared our lives and thoughts by Skype for an hour. This morning, talking about John McCain turned our thoughts to our personal decisions and actions, although minuscule and mundane in comparison.

One piece of the conversation was about how infrequently character is a subject of conversation and reminded me of a conversation I once had with a man from South Africa. I asked him how Nelson Mandela could have been in prison for twenty-seven years and wind up as the country’s first black president within a few years of his release. The man's answer: “We knew his character. Character doesn’t change."

It makes me wonder how Senator McCain and all the other brave veterans who endured the physical and mental torture of being a prisoner of war were able to cope with something I have no reason to believe I could endure. The only thing I’ve come up with is that their military training drilled into them a code and expectation of character.

When John McCain was offered an early release from prison camp because of his PR value, he refused. The code was that the first prisoners in would be the first out and he refused to break that code. I’m sure he suffered for that decision for the remainder of his time in prison.

The military teaches and expects character. They define, and test, a code of conduct to be followed under normal and extreme circumstances. The rest of us mostly make do with guidelines that are often vague and conflicting. All the religions I know of advise us not to steal, yet fudging on our taxes or bootlegging music or movies are common sport. Even our golden rule of treating each other as we would want to be treated is frayed around the edges as the powerful take advantage of those with less power and we see the person in the most powerful office in our country openly talk about taking advantage of women.

As my conversation with Pat continued, we explored our commitments in the context of character. Like almost everyone, we have negative habits we’d like to break and positive habits we’d like to strengthen. One of my examples is doing yoga every morning. Not the killer, hot, power yoga approach, but a gentle, stretching, meditative session of about 15 minutes that leaves me feeling renewed and flexible. I love the after-yoga feeling and notice the difference when I don’t do it … something that probably happens 3-4 times a week. So, my question is “why?"

Human behaviorists have been studying that question forever. Why don’t we do what we know is good for us? It’s the foundation of time management, self-discipline, habit formation and goal attainment. For myself, I believe there are three things I would like to strengthen, each related to character. It may be rather late in the game to be articulating my code, but here’s a start:
  1. I will keep my promises, both to myself and others. Which may mean that I need to be careful about what I promise.
  2. I will value the long-term over the short-term. While 15-minutes of Facebook would be fun and entertaining, 15-minutes of yoga will keep me flexible and strong. I need to know and stay true to my long-term values.
  3. I will speak my truth, regardless. I will also remember that "my truth" may not be same as "the truth."
So, here’s a question: How and when do you talk about character?


Here’s the Quora response that started this train of thought:

Joe Fillmore, Served in USMC : Viet Nam and Justin Elias, I have spent 15 years in the Marine Corps as an Infantryman.
Most civilians don’t “GET” what the deal is about John McCain and Vietnam. Yes, he was a POW and should be honored b/c he went through this horrific experience. But there is something John McCain did that sets him aside, that military people get and that most civilians are clueless about.
McCain was badly injured when he ejected. He wasn’t just tortured for over a year, but the NVA would rebreak his shoulder (which is why he was not able to raise his arm above his head when he returned). I’ll spare you the variety of techniques used on McCain when he was in captivity.
But when the NVA discovered that he was the son of a famous admiral, they decided he would be the next released POW (for PR purposes). McCain refused to accept release. The POWs being held had an internal policy—you would be released in the order you were captured (so you wouldn’t have an individual who would be punished by being held extra lengthy times while others got to go home). So when the NVA told McCain that he was going home and would be leaving the torture, the isolation, the punishment and the deprivation….he refused to go and remained loyal to the release protocol.

I’ve often disagreed with John McCain on a range of policies. You can say what you will about his personality or preferences on a range of subjects. But to make light or disparage him as a POW is repulsive. I’ve never heard any active duty or retired US military personnel discuss this issue at length—b/c it’s not necessary for them to do so. To a warrior, they respect John McCain for being a POW and they respect him for refusing an early repatriation and they find any claims to the contrary to be contemptible.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Joyce. And I need to ponder your question. I wholeheartedly agree that character is important to our core, but how often do any of us talk about it? The last episode of Designated Survivor did a good job of this. Fictitious President Tom Kirkman has character and lives it. Time to examine my own.