By Caitlin Kelly
“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” — coach John Wooden
This week, thanks to the media, (yes, of which I’m still a member), I saw two powerful examples of character in action.
The first, which I won’t belabor, was that of Presidential candidate Donald Trump, mocking and dismissing the 14 women who have come forward to share publicly a private and humiliating and angering moment they say happened to them in his presence when he groped them.
We weren’t there, so only he and they know what happened.
But it’s how someone behaves in private — and behaves consistently — that defines the essence of their character.
It’s what you do and say to people, usually people with much less power than you have, (i.e. you can lose your job, your home, your friendship, your marriage if you fight back or tell anyone what shit they’ve subjected you to).
Some people wield that power like a billy club, swinging it with a smirk — over and over and over.
We also live in an unprecedented era of personality, where The Famous boast of, and monetize, their millions of followers on Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, as proof of their popularity.
Oh, how we rush to buy their music and books and line up to vote for them, cheering til we’re hoarse.
We literally idolize them, projecting onto them every possible good quality we so long to see and feel in our broken world.
Yet we have no idea whatsoever who they really are.
I watch a show called Project Runway on Lifetime, a cable channel here, and have for years. It begins every season with a group of 12 or more ambitious fashion designers — some of whom have auditioned repeatedly for years to get on the show — who will be whittled down week after week by competing in a variety of difficult challenges.
Last night’s episode was an astonishing and moving reminder of character, that quaint, old-fashioned, Victorian notion of behaving with integrity and honor.
When it came time for the losing team to name one of their fellow team members to send home for good, four of the six said something unlikely and unprecedented: Send me. I screwed up.
I’ve never seen the show’s host and mentor ,Tim Gunn, so moved and so impressed with the behavior of the man chosen to leave, who had also volunteered to take one for his team.
If you’ve watched previous seasons, (yes, I’m a serious fan!), you’ll recall moments when there was a virtual stampede, (remember Ashley Nell Tipton?), to toss someone else under the bus.
It was ugly to see and, yes, revealed character.
I’ve now been with my husband for 16 years, married for five.
The decisive moment for me was a revelation of his character, in a time of fear, unplanned expense and chaos, when so many other men, no matter how handsome or charming, would have wobbled or slithered away from the challenge or left me, once more, to pick up the pieces as her only, overwhelmed child.
My mother, living alone in a small town, had been been found — the door broken in by police after worried neighbors called them — lying in bed for days, unable to move.
A stroke? We had no idea. She lived, as she still does, a six-hour flight plus two-hour drive from us.
I called Jose, then working in one of the most senior and responsible photo editing jobs at The New York Times, and said, “We have to go. Tomorrow.”
He told his bosses and we went.
His decision to be a mensch was instant.
And invisible to everyone but me and his bosses.
It cost a fortune I didn’t have that he paid for — last-minute airfare, meals, car rental.
When we got to my mother’s house, he took her stained mattress to the balcony to scrub it clean. Not a word. No complaints. No whining.
Just — help, support, strength.