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Max Roytenberg

Max Roytenberg: Building Character

By Max Roytenberg posted April 20, 2015. Vancouver, Canada



We all start from scratch, wide-eyed, gazing out at the incomprehensible world into which we are born, struggling to understand what is going on. From there on, so much depends on where we happen to land. It is such a lottery. Do we arrive in Africa, or in India, or in China, someplace in Central or South America? Are we refuse on a beach somewhere, in a sub-tropical hovel, a burning wind-blown desert, in a teeming ant-hill of people where life is only a prelude to a better place in some other realm because mere existence is a daily struggle?  Or do we find ourselves in a western-style developed society with which most of my readers will be acquainted? Our model here is different from most of the other venues I have mentioned, places where the vast majority of the people on this planet find themselves. I don’t know what it is like to grow up in many of these other places, although my imagination can run riot. Am I amusing you yet?


For us, then, in our fortunate environment, it can be about what our parents are like, what resources they command, physical, mental and financial. We get some chances to learn from the individuals who may have some interest in us making the best of our deal. What we turn out to be is the mysterious result. What makes one person reliable and trustworthy, and another incapable of responding to life’s challenges in ways those around them can count on? How much comes from the example we see from the life of those who are the models for us? How much comes from our own experiences that some modes of behaviour just don’t pay off? Maybe there are venues when ‘devil take the hindmost’ is the way to go, ways which many of us would not favour. Do principles we learn from parents growing up, rules of living we adopt from our belief systems, are these what govern the way we behave? Do we resist self-interest in crucial situations, in favour doing “the right thing”, as we are tested at times when only we will know the truth? Heavy stuff!


What is good character? Anyone can define it in his own image. Its definition can vary with time and place. When we talk about Machiavelli, we are talking about modes of thinking and modes of living which are not likely to be included in the behaviour patterns of a person we consider to be of good character. This man’s work was a primer on how to take advantage of the weaknesses and follies of others. Similarly with the ideas of the Chinese thinker Sun Tzu, who counselled rulers how to win in the games of war and statecraft. Contrast the commandments of the Hebrew Bible which encapsulates the rules of life and living that many popularly believe hold the essence of elements constituting what we might think of as good character. Treating others as we would like to be treated, equality in rendering justice, compassion for the weak and powerless, honesty, respect and charity, it’s all there. How do we value loyalty, friendship and similar aspects of human relations?


I am an eighty-year old. Been around for a while. I think I am a person of good character. Yet I know of a multitude of small compromises I have made with the small still voice in my head that dictates to me the rules in which I believe we should live by. Yet I transgress. Often on impulse. Often without thinking. Often without too much regret. Petty larceny, at worst. Stealing a grape to taste before I purchase in a grocery store? I find I have an infinite capacity to forgive myself. That’s a good thing, right! Good for my mental health. What to do? What to do? Now, you are getting to really know me. What’s going on inside yourself?


Some faith groups offer the practice of confession. Go and sin no more! Yes, there’s the rub! What to do about serial confession that is just a repetition of wrongful acts. It isn’t strange that the practice has atrophied in terms of usage. For others, anything, even the most odious act, is permitted in the name of advancing a religious purpose. Perpetrators, people of good character? On dangerous ground, aren’t we?   


In our society most of us never quit trying to live up to the standards we set for our behaviour inside our heads. The still small voice never quits whatever the standard we set. I sure beat myself up for all the times I lost instead of winning. What should I have done that I didn’t do?  Would all those actions all have been according to Hoyle? I once accused someone, (a bureaucrat,) of taking bribes and threatened to expose him. I didn’t believe that it was true myself. But it did persuade him to get going and do what I thought was the right thing, something good for the people for whom I was working. I have used the influence I have had, through my connections, to force people to live up to legal obligations they were shirking.


Working with government ministers, bureaucrats and corporate leaders, I have played the good soldier, to serve the ends of my clients. But I have permitted myself, at times, to defy, to obfuscate, to manipulate, when these served a good purpose. And I have paid the inevitable price at the end of days for my passionate use of power when I had it. What do you think some of these partners might have thought of my character? There must have been compromises that I allowed myself to ensure the achievement of my victories? I comfort myself with the accomplishments that I think led to good things. There were so many times when I was powerless to get the “right thing” done. Imagine! After four-score years, I am still a work in progress.


No doubt about it. I was quite a character.  What is your story?                                                                                                         

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