Do We Always Need to “Build Character”?

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I had surprising conversation with a friend recently. She asked me about life consulting, and I was telling her how I might advise a mother who is overwhelmed with family duties but wanting to pursue a hobby to get some help with things she didn’t love (laundry, cooking, etc.) in order to have a bit more time for what she did love – (painting, music, etc.).

My friend, a mother of grown children, burst out: “but that’s not character building!”

I quickly replied that leaving her family and running away to Argentina was not character building, but devoting 5 fewer hours a week to a household chore could hardly be seen as a life of vice. After some thought, she agreed.

This conversation left me thinking. As Christians, we are raised to believe (rightly) in the importance of character. We are taught to practice virtue – including the virtue of perseverance in tasks we may not like. Self-sacrifice and self-control form the basis of a life of service.

But sometimes it seems like Christians feel that they always ought to choose the more difficult task, because “building character” is so important. So is there no room for doing what comes easily to us?

How do we walk the line between doing what is easy because we love it and/or it comes naturally to us, and doing what is difficult because it builds our character?

I think we can get a better answer if we consider the difference between virtue and talent.

Virtues are the fabric of our moral character. Talents help us to excel at our tasks. Sometimes, our talents will help us grow in virtue. Other times, we will need to pursue virtue without the help of talent.

Virtue is a habit of doing good. Courage, fortitude, perseverance, justice – these are all virtues. Talents tend to be natural abilities. They are a-moral. (Not immoral!) Talents can be used for doing good or evil.

If I have a talent for maths, I can use that talent to help people with their taxes, or to “cook the books” for a company. If I am naturally a fast runner, I can run marathons, or I can run away from a crime scene.

But if I possess the virtue of courage, I can’t use that for evil – because by its nature, a virtue is directed toward the good. Rescuing someone from a burning building requires courage. Robbing a bank does not require courage. It entails the vice of what we might call “bravado” or even “thrill-seeking.” Yet, in both scenarios, I might use my natural talent of, for instance, thinking quickly on my feet or being clever.

“Character building” entails honing my natural talents in service of the good. But it also entails creating a habit of doing good even when my natural talents aren’t much help.

Let’s say for a moment that I’m not good with numbers and maths does not come easy for me. But I’m also working building my character, in particular, with the virtue of temperance in money matters. I am not very good at keeping track of my expenses, but I want to live without debt and be able to give money to those in need. I don’t need to become an expert accountant, but I do need to sit down and commit myself to figuring out how to keep track of my expenses in order to be temperate in spending money (a virtue).

Lacking natural talent in one area is not an excuse for lacking virtue, or not building character in that area.

On the flip side, doing what gives us joy, naturally, doesn’t necessarily mean we are failing in virtue.

The woman who decides to order pizza one night and use the extra time saved from all the preparation, cooking and cleaning of dinner to pursue her natural talent of painting is probably not exhibiting the vice of selfishness! (As with all things moral, of course only her conscience can witness her motive.) And in fact, she may very well be demonstrating the virtue of prudence, or even generosity if she plans to paint well for those same children or others.

That’s a far cry from deciding that her children do not need nutritious food and she will never provide dinner for them again. Cooking is a skill, not a virtue. Care for others is a virtue, not a talent.

Do we sometimes need to do what is difficult for us? Yes. Do we always need to do what is difficult, precisely because it is difficult? No.

What’s more, the person who remains faithful to her chosen responsibilities but seeks to develop her natural talents will bring joy to those around her, by being more joyful herself.

How do you work towards growing in virtue and developing your natural talents?