Building Character

Every once in awhile, a complete stranger comes into your life and inspires you to be better than you are. These encounters are rare; an unexpected visitor awakens you to your human potential. We walk away motivated to move beyond the confines of our limited identity and ask the bigger questions: Who am I? What qualities am I actively cultivating in myself?

I recently had such an encounter.

IMG_3433At sunset, just as the sky turned from blue to pink, he would appear. A frail old man, shoulders gently hunched, thin arms and legs emerging from a wrinkled torso. He came to the beach to run. He ran in a zigzag , making an “s” shaped pattern of footprints across the sand. Arms pumping vigorously, his steps were tiny, and from a distance, one would swear he was moving in slow motion. Yet his movement wasn’t labored, but rather joyful. Every step a small victory! He embodied a joie de vive and vitality that caught the eye of everyone on the beach.

My friends and I came to the beach to enjoy the dance of color as the sun sunk below the horizon, but it is not the sunset we remember most: It is Jerry, the old man who came to run. Without uttering a word, Jerry’s joyful commitment to his evening ritual left an indelible imprint on me and how I think about aging. Aging is a process the Western culture fears. Aging means loss— loss of mobility, loss of freedom, loss of vitality, loss of adventure.

Jerry proves all of these assumption wrong.

Perhaps aging is a process whereby the physical body softens so the deeper qualities of character can emerge? Perhaps aging is a process of perfecting the human spirit?

On our last night of vacation, as my friends and I snapped our final sunset photos, Jerry appeared, as he always did, ready to run. This time, however, Jerry stopped in the middle of one of his slow zigzags, and walked right over to us. With twinkling eyes he asked, “Would you like me to take a photo of you all?”

My stomach fluttered with excitement, the way one feels upon meeting a celebrity. “May I take a picture with you?” I asked.

A bit surprised by my enthusiasm, he said, “With me? I am just an old man doing his exercise.”

“We watch you run the beach every evening sir. You are truly an inspiration. I would love to have a photo to remember you.”

My friend snapped this photo. IMG_4563

I had so many questions for Jerry: Where was he from? What did he eat? What advice did he have to offer? Before I had time to uttered a word, he was off running again, the tide lapping at his feet as he headed off into the sunset.

I returned from my trip to Hawaii a month ago, and the memory of Jerry continues to inspire me. His being in the world affected not just me, but everyone who saw him running.

In a culture that values productivity above all else, asking the question of “being” is a radical shift. We are so used to identifying with what we do that we have lost touch with who we are, what we care about, and the power of presence.

Every single one of us can cultivate the quality of presence that liberates others; we can be a Jerry. Our character can and does affect those around us whether we are aware of it or not.

What qualities of being are you actively cultivating in yourself?


A helpful tool I share with my clients from positive psychology is to think about how you want to be remembered at the end of your life. Imagine you have passed and your close loved ones are gathering to celebrate your life. Take your time reflecting on these questions:

What would they say about who you were in the world? How you related to those around you? What you paid attention to? The energy you brought into a room?

Look back over what you have written, and ask yourself if your daily life reflects these qualities of character? How can you align your life with what you care about most? What would that look like?

After you’ve finished writing, put aside what you have written and keep it somewhere safe. Read over your character legacy daily to keep these qualities at the forefront of your consciousness. A simple yet profound Zen saying says it all:

“The most important thing, is to remember the most important thing.”

I keep a small note in my wallet. “Remember Jerry!”

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