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The Ten Commandments of Character




Excerpted from
The Ten Commandments of Character: Essential Advice for Living an Honorable, Ethical, Honest Life
By Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

If you ask people what they most want from others, they will usually answer "good character" (whether they use precisely this expression or not). The knowledge that those with whom we interact are kind and honorable is the surest guarantee that we and our loved ones will be treated well.

But if you ask people what they want most for themselves, they will answer, "To be happy and successful."

In short, the reason we want good character from others, and happiness and success for ourselves, is that in both cases we want what is best for us.

But what people don't generally realize, as Dennis Prager, the noted radio commentator, has pointed out, is that achieving the good things in life, such as happiness, success, and loving relationships, depends on our developing in ourselves what we most want from others-good character.

Take happiness, for example. Being grateful is not only an important aspect of good character (that's why the word ingrate has such a negative connotation), but it is also a prerequisite for leading a happy life. Consider the mind-set of a grateful person: "Look at what so-and-so did for me; he must really care about me. Look how so-and-so helped me; she really loves me." At the very moment a grateful person is cultivating gratitude, she also is cultivating a sense of being loved.

Conversely, think of how an ungrateful person thinks: "The only reason he did that for me is that he wants me to do something for him" or "She helped me because she knows that I know so-and-so, and she thinks I'll intervene with that person for her." By harboring these thoughts, an ungrateful person displays not only a stingy disposition, but also shows how unworthy of love she feels. Ungrateful people can't imagine anybody doing something for them merely out of goodwill and kindness.

Thus, ingratitude turns out to be a major reason ungrateful people are unhappy. Can you think of any ungrateful person whom you know who is happy?

Success also depends in part on developing good character traits. Thus, self-control has long been known as a requisite for leading a moral life (e.g., one has to learn to control one's temper, impulses, or bad inclinations), but we now know that it is equally necessary for leading a successful one. Daniel Goleman, author of Working with Emotional Intelligence, reports on a study of four-year-olds at Stanford University that became known as the "marshmallow test." Children at the university's preschool were brought into a room one at a time; a marshmallow was put on the table in front of them; and they were told, "You can have this marshmallow now if you want, but if you don't eat it until after I run an errand, you can have two when I return."

The study revealed that fourteen years later, as the participants were graduating high school, the children who had eaten the marshmallow right away were less able to resist temptation or to achieve their goals and were more likely to "fall apart" under stress than the youngsters who had waited for their reward. Perhaps the most surprising result was that those children willing to defer gratification scored, on average, 210 points higher, out of a possible 1600, on the SAT (college entrance) tests than did those who wanted to eat the marshmallow immediately.

A lack of good character traits also makes it difficult to have enduring friendships or to be truly loved, because almost no one is willing to rely on a person who doesn't possess these traits to be a friend or a spouse. Can you imagine trying a build a relationship with someone if you don't know whether he or she is truthful, or if that person doesn't know whether you are? People who are untruthful also have great difficulty believing anyone else is telling the truth in a situation in which they know that they themselves would lie. Thus, dishonest people not only can't be trusted, they also can't trust others-and trust is probably the most important prerequisite for satisfying friendships and love.

Self-esteem, another element in personal happiness, derives in part from knowing that one has done the right thing. Compare two fathers: one who has spent a lifetime struggling to support his family and one who abandoned his family, evaded child-support payments, and lived an exciting social life. The second man may have enjoyed more sensual pleasures and experiences, but which of the two do you think feels a greater sense of self-esteem (not to mention inner peace)? Truly enduring self-esteem comes from leading a good life.

In addition, because good character demands courage, a person who has worked on developing her character has greater self-confidence. One of the most highly regarded women in America today, Rosa Parks, began her public life with a small but very brave and significant act. As she writes in her autobiography, My Story, "I had no idea when I refused to give up my seat on the Montgomery bus that my small action would help put an end to the segregation laws in the South. I only knew that I was tired of being pushed around. I was a regular person, just as good as anyone else."

Rosa Parks's act not only transformed America for the better, but also clearly confirmed for her that she was a person of value, "as good as anyone else."

In short, as far as happiness, success, tine developing of enduring relationships, and self-esteem are concerned, doing the right thing turns out to be the right thing to do.



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