The Silver Lining of Character

2 April 2020

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life,” said Greek philosopher, Socrates. I had often pondered this quote. What was Socrates warning us of?  

Being busy seems to have become a modern-day reality. You could say, that for human beings, it’s become more about ‘doing’ than ‘being’. New York Times columnist, David Brooks agrees. He explains how our culture exalts ‘what we do’ but overlooks the humbler virtues concerning ‘who we are’.

But, now in the blink of an eye, our busy world comes to a halt; the pendulum swings. For many of us (not our incredible essential services), we need to stay at home and the time has come for our young people to stop doing a multitude of things.

So, Socrates. What does this mean for us? What opportunities unfold when we leave the barrenness of a busy life?


The opportunity to ‘be’

Slowing down gives us the opportunity, if we choose, to be still. In stillness, we step back, reflect and make room for gratitude, empathy, creativity, connection and presence. We can choose to let go of the ‘doing’ and give more space to ‘being’.

Over the past three years, it has been our vision to create a community that values good and moral character as the key to a flourishing life. You can read about our implementation of the VIA character strengths taxonomy here and here.

Now more than ever, our character and attitude will dictate how we experience the weeks ahead. This sentiment is expressed in one of my all-time favourite quotes. Said Anaïs Nin “We don’t see things as they are; we see them how we are”.

The Thinker

Photo credit: Meg McCollister

In his thinking about the development of character, Aristotle emphasised the need for self-reflection. We need to stop, look inside and develop awareness of self and appreciation of others. This challenging time gives us an opportunity to ask some big and beautiful questions related to character:

Who are these circumstances calling me to be? What character strengths and virtues do I want to bring to this situation?

 What character strengths can we cultivate and appreciate?

In this blog post, I want to highlight some of the virtues and accompanying character strengths which I have pondered in the past few weeks.

Virtues of transcendence

Transcendence is a valuable virtue in challenging times. Transcendent people go beyond a difficult situation through the creation of meaning. They construct a positive narrative that helps them understand and rise above adversity. It’s all about having the glass half-full. Viktor Frankl’s work reminds us that some people, despite enduring the greatest atrocities, still choose to see the meaning and purpose in a situation. It is inspiring stuff.

Optimism/Hope, Spirituality, Humour and Gratitude are all important character strengths that fall under the transcendent umbrella. People who use these strengths explain situations in a way that is hopeful. They expect that things will work out and take action to make the future positive. Through developing a positive narrative about the world, transcendent people ensure it is they, not their circumstances, that are the locus of control.

Where is the good? What can we hope for?

Sunrise of Godley Head, Christchurch

Virtues of humanity

These character strengths are all about interpersonal connection. In the era of the bubble, they have never been so important! People who value this virtue show strengths of kindness and social intelligence. They give people grace and accept shortcomings. For them, people matter.

This is a time where we will all need to be conscious and considerate of the feelings of others. With social intelligence, we are empathetic, understanding that each one of us will respond to this situation in a different way. When we are kind, we are compassionate and generous. It is about thinking beyond our own needs, so we contribute to the collective good. Every day I am reminded of the virtues of humanity through the incredible leadership of our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. She leads with fine-tuned intuition, emotional intelligence and kindness. For her “It’s humanity. That’s all.”

Jacinda Ardern

Photo credit: The Insider

Virtues of wisdom

At times like these, wise people are worth their weight in gold. Wisdom is a beautiful virtue; a virtue of the mind. Emerging from knowledge, insight and experience, wisdom is a way of thinking that sees the big picture. Wise people are humble, they listen and value multiple perspectives. It is about being open-minded and valuing new ways of thinking.

Character strengths like perspective, judgement, humility, creativity and curiosity contribute to the virtue of wisdom. Through the past weeks, stories have emerged from the elderly as they share wisdom of the ages. Queen Elizabeth recounts experiences of her reign through the uncertainty of World War II. David Attenborough reminds us of the importance of nature. We turn to the ancient sages to remind ourselves that this too, shall pass. We seek knowledge from authors, philosophers, musicians, poets and spiritual leaders.  

David Attenbourgh

Photo Credit: New Scientist

Closer to home, Cantabrians reflect on their experiences and the wisdom gained through living with the uncertainty of the earthquakes. St Andrew’s College is led by a Rector who has acquired wisdom through hard earned experience. At the same time, we think creatively and adapt to new ways of thinking. It is exciting.

What wisdom will we acquire by living through these times?

On the one hand, we are told adversity builds character. Yet someone else says character is revealed in adversity. Whichever is the truth, take this time to be disciplined and intentional in your thoughts and actions. Spend time reflecting on the unique constellation of character strengths you are bringing to this situation. At the same time, appreciate the virtues of others. Ask yourself the big and beautiful questions related to ‘being’ a human being and keep looking for the good in people. It's everywhere.

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