Some people judge and react to you mainly by your behavior. Others react primarily to your character. Is it about doing, or being?
In the case of children at nearly all times, the primary reaction is to behavior. (Not always. We’ve all known children with character way beyond their years.) In adults, behavior is usually the first evidence we have of who they are, so there it begins–but typically gives precedence to character in time.
This is why a child will try to rack up some good deeds to cancel out the bad deeds, or presume eternal forgiveness for all errors and misbehaviors; life is a ledger to them, gold stars and black marks, reward and penalty. An adult–at least one who thinks like an adult–will seek to correct wrongdoing going forward as well as making amends or atonement. After paying the bill, a child looks forward to getting by with the deed (or one like it) again. Plenty of adults in relationships lapse into child thinking, or never actually grow out of it. Entire segments of society have it as their foundation. Most families would have no idea how to intrarelate without it, because family is most people’s refuge for bad character. If you have people who will never reject you for lack of character, why bother to show them good character? For many, that really is what family boils down to. Paradox: that’s the low character response anyway. In short, if one is of low character with family and high character with non-relatives, maybe it means one is of basic low character and just puts on a better front to the world. Maybe it also means character can be situational, and that the entire subject is more nuanced and complex than I have thought through. You tell me. I don’t pretend to be an authority on this. Dissect the fallacies in my thinking, and I will thank you.
Does behavior reflect character? Not always, but that’s really the fundamental question, is it not? If my wife says something cruel and unjustified to me, does that mean she’s of low character, or that she’s simply having a bad behavioral lapse? If she is of high character, such an utterance is out of her character, and doesn’t reflect who she is. Of course, if she is of high character, it won’t be long before she’s pretty embarrassed by it, because it is not who she really is. But while her words may have offended me, my fundamental reaction to her is to her character, not one action. It would take more than one bad behavior to convince me her character had altered. Hope she sees me the same way. She must, because she has self-respect and she stays married to me. Surely there’s something about my character she likes, because it certainly isn’t because of my mighty deeds (or mighty misdeeds never committed).
What got me thinking about this is a period of watching a child in an adult body, experiencing the world from one unsustainable pleasure or toy to the next, seemingly contrite over black marks and happy over gold stars, happy to do the minimum to get by. The individual never fully grasped that it wasn’t about bookkeeping good and bad acts, but the development of personal character. And when it became clear that this person’s priority was not the same as my priority, there was nothing left to do but turn her/him loose to find it as s/he might.
Or might not.
Looking back at this, I am alarmed how much I sound like a mediocre Andy Rooney knockoff. But I’m posting it anyway. The disappointment hurt, and maybe talking about it will help.