The Good Life: Seminars on Personal Development & Character Formation

Last Wednesday marked the last of a series of four seminars on ‘The Good Life.’ These were led by Fr Joseph Evans, the chaplain of Greygarth Hall (the student residence in the building next to Citywise in Manchester), followed by a discussion and refreshments each week.

We were so excited to tackle some of the Big Questions related to meaning and self-discovery that affect all of us and inform our character work at Citywise: How can we achieve happiness, and live a good life, of purpose and success? What do those words even mean? What constitutes morality and why bother to fight for justice, help others, wish to prolong a life or seek personal growth?

Given the importance of these questions and the evidence that we are drifting away from them, we decided to focus our attention on them with our mentors.

Below is a brief summary of the four seminars.

Seminar 1: Why Character?

What do we mean by character? We began this seminar with a discussion on temperament and character. Temperament, it seems, is what we are born with (whether we are more energetic or placid, cooler or more hot-blooded). Character on the other hand is what we do with our temperament and whether we develop it positively or not. Good character can come through education, a person’s social and religious background, life circumstances and personal actions and decisions.

We reflected on the different things that influence us, where do we get our values from, and to what extent are we free?

We agreed that it is hard to achieve something, such as good character, without knowing what it is. We discussed what good traits make us flourish both personally and socially. What constitutes good character? Then Fr Joe shared a helpful illustration, distinguishing feelings from principles:

“Feelings can be good or bad, but they’re not really fixed. Principles on the other hand are fixed rules or laws that govern our actions. When we see reports about starvation, we feel terrible about it. We’re deeply moved and upset. We might even make a donation. But often very quickly we return to a lifestyle which might even perpetuate that exploitation. Being governed by principles prevents us from being ‘blown about’ by the wind of feelings or passions. If we make it our principle to fight poverty, we will do so on a constant basis. Feelings are the wind blowing us about which might lead us to do good or bad things, whereas principles become an internal power source driving our action, operating over and above feelings.”

We finished off, looking towards week 2, with a quote by Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher considered the founder of Taoism:

“Watch your thoughts; they become words.
Watch your words; they become actions.
Watch your actions; they become habits.
Watch your habits; they become character.
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”

Seminar 2: How to form character

In the second seminar we spoke about the steps we can take to form good character. Fr Joe presented a four-step model for this.

  1. Have some ideas as to what this involves. People will have different ideas about what constitutes a life well lived and different cultures and religions have come up with different moral codes. Grappling with these concepts, with the idea of truth and what we should aim for in life, gives a framework for what growth means and so is important if we want to grow as people.
  2. Live and practice good habits and virtues. We discussed the 4 Citywise Character Traits developed from the Cardinal Virtues: Good judgement (Prudence), Fairness (Justice), Resilience (Fortitude) and Self-control (Temperance), and agreed that character growth comes from overcoming yourself and from the repetition of good acts. As the journalist Lynn Truss said, summarising the thought of Aristotle: “If you want to be good, it’s not a bad idea to practice.”
  3. Examine yourself. Self-knowledge, awareness of inner strengths as well as weaknesses is an important step on the road to goodness. We may find that we sometimes feel like a good car with damaged steering, and that living life well isn’t always easy. Yet identifying where we need to struggle can help us grow good habits.
  4. Lastly, we discussed our conscience and its benefit to us. Conscience seems to depend on our idea of what constitutes a good life. Fr Joe suggested that the more we try to follow our conscience, the more sensitive it becomes. Finally, we tackled questions such as: Is conscience oppressive or liberating? Should we always follow our conscience? – which led to some interesting discussion!

“The seminar has given us an opportunity to talk and discuss topics that we can apply to our lives and to our mentoring activities!” – mentor

Seminar 3: Good for me, good for others. From personal to social development

This seminar tackled the social effect of good living; how our efforts to achieve good character can affect and benefit others. We discussed how we can move from a ‘fatalistic’ mentality through to a ‘growth’ mentality (there is always a way forward) to a ‘benefit-others’ mentality (my growth ties in with the growth of those around me).

Fr Joe introduced the idea that cultural poverty, or poverty of vision, is one that lacks any imagination of growth. It was suggested that we need to see ourselves and others as not just who we are, but who we could be, always having a vision of growth.

We then spoke about how our own personal growth can create a culture of social integrity and high standards around us. Life lived in pursuit of the greater good can have a ripple effect. Acknowledging when we make a mistake or behave wrongly to others, and apologising for it, is part of this growth.

As an example Fr Joe mentioned Vaclav Havel’s explanation that Communism in Czechoslovakia was toppled because of individuals brave enough to start telling the truth about a system that was based on a lie.  In a corrupt system, one person not asking for a bribe might just be the start of its fall. Through our efforts to grow as people we can help create a culture of moral integrity, but through our bad actions we can contribute to the growth of corruption in society.

Because of how closely tied our development is with our environment, we then discussed the importance of virtuous friendships. We thought about relationships in terms of quality rather than quantity and were challenged to think about how we help our friends develop and to ask questions such as: Will this person help me to be better or bring me down? Being a friend, it was suggested, is also an ethical choice. Fr Joe suggested that seeking good for others is the building block of friendships well as romantic relationships.

We also looked at development on a wider scale. We saw how seeking the development of others should lead us to examine how developed we ourselves are. Rather than simply assuming we are superior to the one we are helping, we – as people and as Western society – should always be willing to learn from others. Fr Joe tied this in with the concept of salvation. While we are all attracted by this idea (evident in slogans like ‘save the planet’ or ‘save the children’), we need to think about just what this involves.

We also discussed the idea that every economic action has an ethical dimension, and spoke about life-style choices and the future of our planet. Then we ended with an interesting discussion about whether we can help others develop if we ourselves are living badly.

“I really liked the clear and structured way this was done! We were able to discuss interesting topics with people with different views!” – mentor

Seminar 4: Building a better society

In the very last seminar we spoke about key principles that build a good society. We started this off with a discussion on equality, which hinges on our definition of a person. We mentioned key defining traits such as individuality, rationality, capacity for relationship and communion, and consciousness. This led us to a discussion on cases when people lack some of these traits, and to an exploration of the idea of ‘full personhood’ in which a person might fulfil these traits completely. Is anybody ‘fully’ human, and what might that mean?

We spoke about justice as the fundamental social virtue, on which society must be built. We discussed other principles such as dignity of the person, solidarity, subsidiarity, family as a foundation unit, and respect for freedom. Finally, we discussed the notion of public service and the consequences of living in a way in which we would feel ourselves responsible for the good of all.