May 15, 2012

Character flaws

By Deacon Patrick Moynihan *

A good memory is essential to good character.

When I was in fifth grade, I pulled a piano bench out from under my teacher as he was sitting down. Fortunately, my teacher was not hurt, at least physically. He was angered and, I am sure, momentarily humiliated by my disrespect. However, he regained his composure quickly and calmly dismissed me from class. There must not have been a call home as my mom does not even remember that I took piano in middle school.

The only life-changing outcomes resulting from my lapse in civility, thankfully, are that I can only play one song on the piano—I was not allowed to go back to piano class—and that my gut wrenches every time the incident comes to mind. I assume from the way my former teacher easily shook off my impudent behavior at the time that he did not end up too scarred. Afterall, he was a veteran elementary school music teacher. He must have had above average resilience to pain of all types. 

As uncomfortable as it is to have this memory resurface from time to time—as it did recently while I was reading an article about Mitt Romney’s alleged anti-social behavior in high school—I find the memory helpful. Reflecting on this serious misstep keeps me humbler and more sensitive to the impact of my behavior on others. It prods me to work on my character.

When I periodically beat myself up over this impetuous act, I do take into account that I was only twelve. I did not know at the time the sort of serious physical damage that could result from pulling a chair out from under a person. On the other hand, I do not let myself off the hook completely. I know my action was motivated by a desire to entertain others at the expense of an innocent individual. To make sure I learned my lesson, I find it crucial to admit that I was inexcusably mean that day.

In high school, I was also quite the cut-up. The youngest of eight, I had a lot of sparring practice before entering the ring with my peers. I could already quip and jibe with the speed of a prize fighter. I rarely ducked an opportunity to make a wisecrack. My lack of discretion created a lot of collateral damage—I was often insensitive to those who could least afford it.

In the second semester of my senior year, I had an epiphany. I realized that I was making fun of socially weaker students to impress my stronger peers. To this day, I remember exactly where I was standing on the day I had this realization. I had just made an especially uncharitable remark when I caught a clear glimpse of myself from a third-party vantage point. I realized that I was humiliating others to earn affirmation. I discovered that I had become a court jester seeking acceptance and security at others’ expense. That day I quit being funny in that manner, but I have not forgotten my victims.

Some may argue that leaving behind childhood pranks and curbing one’s tongue are just natural parts of growing up. But, I am not so sure that virtue is gained that simply or good character is built that easily. Without the sincere acknowledgment of wrongdoing and a clear recollection of the harm we have done, forgiveness and real character growth seems unlikely. Simply claiming to have matured out of a bad behavior without recognizing it as such seems dangerously incomplete. What’s to say that a discarded bad habit, especially one that has never been acknowledged for the evil that it is, will not resurface later in life?

Deacon Patrick Moynihan graduated Culver Military Academy in 1983, from Brown University with BA in Sanskrit and Classics in 1987, and from Providence College with an MA in Religious Studies [Theology] in 1999.

He taught Latin and English in a Catholic High School from 1987 to 1990, traded commodities, futures and options for an international trading company from 1990 to 1995 and directed a free Catholic mission school in Haiti for academically gifted children from the poorest areas around Port au Prince from 1996 to 2006.

Deacon Moynihan was ordained in October of 2001 as a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Rockford [IL] where he was the director of formation and later the Office for the Permanent Diaconate from 2001 to 2006. He has since gone back to Haiti and is currently the president of The Haitian Project.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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