We’ve heard since the cradle that no man is an island.  No woman is, either.  Every day we interact with others:  friends, relatives, coworkers, strangers.  And with each encounter we are presented with both challenges and opportunities–and the choices are ours to make.


These aren’t necessarily enormous choices, though they can be.  But what is really on my mind at the moment are the little things.  Those everyday choices that present themselves unexpectedly and require decisions on our part that won’t change the world, but certainly can impact us and our feelings about ourselves as well as those within our sphere of influence.


Say, for example, you’re at the store and you buy several items and hand the cashier a $20.  And you get too much change.  That’s an encounter that requires a choice.  Do you inform the cashier, return the money, or do you consider it a windfall and keep it?


Either choice tells you more about who you are.  Either choice leaves you with a stronger sense of self.  But which self?


Common sense says you return the money because it’s the right thing to do.  It’s a no brainer choice, you say.  And yet people everywhere choose to keep the money that isn’t theirs, and they don’t see it as stealing–which it is–they see it as an unexpected windfall.  Some go further and see it as a blessing.  God knew they needed money and this is his way of giving it to them.  Still others will tell themselves that it isn’t like stealing from a person; it’s a company and they put the screws to people all the time.  (Haven’t you heard that a lot about insurance companies?)


But all of that is just corruption and evil blowing smoke to shroud the truth.  If it isn’t yours and you take it, it’s theft.  In this, there is no gray.  Taking the money is wrong.  You can rationalize any way you choose, but the truth is the truth and the truth is it’s theft.


The line in this situation is clear for those who choose to see it.  Those who don’t wish to see the truth will find a way to justify their actions.  Doesn’t make it right.  Doesn’t alter the truth.  But it does make living with the lie a little easier on them.  Or so they think at that moment…


But there’s an old saying about what goes around comes around.  And another that says no good comes from ill.  I don’t necessarily agree with that–good can come from ill if one learns from the errors they’ve made.


When did the lines become so blurred between simple right and wrong?  When did it become acceptable to twist the truth until it becomes more palatable?  And how do we view these events, or ourselves later?


Those are questions I’ve pondered a lot, and ones many, many others have pondered long before me–and no doubt will ponder long after I’m gone.  And the answers, like most answers, aren’t in the hands and heads of others.  They’re within.  They’re the results of our choices.


Each day, when these encounters present themselves, we make decisions that are a reflection of who we are and what we believe.  We might not see the encounters that way–they are often small things we consciously deem insignificant in the larger scheme of life.  But these small things, being reflections of our inner selves are neither small nor insignificant.  They’re important.  They are the sum of who we are and who we choose to be.


I recall something that happened many years ago–I was maybe nine or ten; don’t recall exactly.  But boy do I recall the event.  I was shopping in a department store and found a cigarette case.  I opened it and saw a wad of money.  Even now I recall thinking someone had just cashed their paycheck.  This was grocery and rent money.  Being a family that lived on a tight budget, even at that age, I knew that no grocery money meant going to bed hungry.  And so I took the case to the front of the store and handed it to a security guard, and then I backed away and watched.  This guard, representing authority to me (uniform and all), took out the money and put it in his pocket, then tossed the case into the Lost and Found box.   Even now I can’t explain the level of disillusionment I felt then.  Disappointed, yes, but far more than that.


I learned a lot that day.  I learned the type of person I didn’t want to be.  And knowing that is just as important as knowing what kind of person you do want to be.  He stole.  Someone went without groceries and rent money.  Someone lost faith that people could be honest and not steal.


Today I wonder what impact my choices and his choices had on the owner of that case.  What encounters did she experience?  What small things that seemed insignificant colored her perspective of people from that point on?


See what I mean?  No man or woman or child is an island.  Our choices and decisions impact others and their choices and decisions.  And their beliefs about other people.  We tend to forget that.


Too often we think of ourselves and how things impact us.  But  we fail to take that next step and consider the impact on those we influence.  A simple smile to someone having a wicked day can change an attitude.  A snarl can, too.  Again, you choose.  Will you be patient and compassionate or impatient and self-centered?  Maybe even self-righteous, or self-righteously indignant?


It’s easy to do the right thing when you have nothing to lose.  It can be very difficult to do the right thing when it costs you mightily.  But is it any less or more right–a lesser or greater testament to the truth–than accepting too much change from a sales clerk?  The consequences might be stiffer, but there are still consequences, and they do extend beyond the reach of the initial action or inciting incident.


As we get older, our encounters often carry stiffer consequences.  I was a child when I learned that people in authority can’t automatically be trusted.  That knowledge has served me well.  That didn’t give me–nor do similar experiences give anyone else–the right to not treat everyone with respect.  But respect and trust are two different things.  Respect until you’re given a reason not to, trust when that person has demonstrated through his/her actions and deeds that s/he is trustworthy.


In the teen years, encounters continue.  It is a confusing time when we’re already trying to find our own feet (versus standing on the feet (morals, ethics, standards) set for us by those with authority over us.  Then chemistry kicks in to really mix us up.  Life can be tough on teens.  It’s a critical time in development, of course.  A time where they’re making life-altering, life-shaping decisions at the speed of light–and parents have influence, but peers and others have equal influence.  At times, more influence.


What teen hasn’t pushed the boundaries?  That’s part of finding their feet and growing up.  The lucky ones have parents who are there, paying attention, notice, and guide their kids through these moral dilemmas.  But what about the ones whose parents aren’t there or aren’t paying attention.  Who guides them?  How reliable is their internal moral compass?  What foundation do they have for making moral, ethical choices?  What shapes their character?


We all have a sense of right and wrong.  Of ethics.  And even if we’ve lacked positive, invested authority figures in our lives, there is that moral compass inside us that knows right from wrong and good from bad.  We sense it at soul level.  And we make choices.


My dad was a good example of what I mean here.  His father died when he was two, his mother when he was three.  He was placed in an orphanage, then a relative discovered that he and his brother had inherited a farm but to get the farm, the relative had to take possession of the kids.  That was done.  The farm was sold and the kids abused.  Late for dinner?  You don’t eat.  At ten, you pay room and board.  You want a coat?  Work, earn the money, save for it, and buy it.  He did work and earn and save, but the relative held the money and when he had enough for the coat and asked for his money, he was told it had been spent.  He went that winter without a coat.  And he left, lied about his age and joined the army.  At sixteen, he was in the jungle in a foreign country suffering from malaria.  He never went back “home.”


Now he could have decided the world had screwed him since day one.  Instead, he developed a code of ethics that still astounds me.  He was first to feed anyone hungry–always sparing their pride.  First to take in strays–people or animals, and help them find their place.  First to stand up and say, no, that’s wrong.  I won’t be a party to it.  No, I’ll stand alone if I have to, but I’ll stand because it’s the right thing to do.  He didn’t steal.  He didn’t lie.  He didn’t make excuses.  If he was wrong, he said so.  If he was right, he wouldn’t back down to make things easier on himself.  When he made mistakes, he did what he could to correct the problem and then moved on.


I admired him immensely.  He fascinated me.  How did he manage to become the man he became?  He chose to become that man.  He knew what he didn’t want to be.  He knew what he did want to be–a man of character–and so he worked at it and did his best and he became one.


My point is that many people have crappy childhoods, tough lives and yet they take responsibility for themselves and become someone they respect.  They don’t blame everyone else for their plight.  They don’t expect something for nothing.  They don’t look for ways to sponge off others and make them responsible for who they are or what they’ve got.  They see the truth, accept it, and choose to create themselves from the inside out.  They choose who they wish to be, and then work to become it.


Recently, I spoke to a young woman in her late teens who had the benefit of a great, supportive family, but she got involved with a group of misguided teens.  Many forgot they had morals and elected to delete ethics from their vocabularies and their lives.  If they wanted it, they got it, and any means were acceptable so long as they achieved their desired goal.  Sound familiar?


Unfortunately it’s too familiar.  Some would say at pandemic levels.  Fortunately, it’s not so pervasive that it’s destroyed an entire generation.  In the case of this young woman, she chose to remove herself from this group.  It wasn’t easy.  She was ridiculed.  She was verbally abused, threatened and needless to say, these actions of those with whom she chose not to associate made her life a living hell.  For a time.


Yet in the midst of all this turmoil and upset, this young woman knew innately that to stay in the group would result in her becoming like them.  And the more their true colors revealed, the more determined she became to be different.  “Mrs. H,” she said to me.  “I want to respect myself.”


I nearly wept.  I was so proud of her.  She didn’t take the easy road, she took the right one for her.  Many adults fail to do that.  They’ll take the path of least resistance, the road that causes the least amount of upset in their lives.  The one that doesn’t make them look too closely at who they really are, inside, where it most matters.  But here this young woman, under duress that would buckle the knees of most with more maturity and experience, stood up.  She chose the path where she would respect herself.  The path her internal compass told her was the right path for her take.


Her actions renewed my faith in her generation.  She renewed my hope for her generation.  She is not an island.  She lives among others.  But she saw the truth, accepted it, and made a hard, unpopular choice.  She elected to be a woman of substance.  She chose character.


As adults, these encounters often take on shades of gray that make choices difficult.  Others place us in situations where we know what we should do, but if we do it, we lose something that matters to us.  The more it matters, the harder the choice.  Yet we must choose, and we face this decision knowing that regardless of what we decide those who put us in this position will not be impacted.  They created this situation, put us in this position, but they won’t suffer the consequences.  We will.  So the bottom line is if we choose to do the right thing, then they go on unscathed and we lose something that matters to us.  Doing the right thing costs us–sometimes everything.  Yet right is right, and we know that to compromise is wrong.


We call these moral dilemmas.  We agonize over them.  Look for alternatives that would change the situation and make something bad, good for all involved.  Sometimes we’re successful, and we find such an alternative.  We take that path, the situation changes, and things are good.  Others even learn from the experience the wisdom of seeking win/win situations.


But sometimes there is no alternative.   Take the group–any group from board room to organizational meeting to little league ball club.  Situations like this happen all the time in professional and non-professional groups, I’m sorry to say.  Situations where a person of character makes a commitment on behalf of and with the authority of others, and then those others reveal themselves as users, abusers, and/or losers who change their minds and break their commitments without remorse.  They use terms like “it’s for the good of the group” or “it’s a business decision” or “we have no choice.”


They do, of course, have choices.  One such choice is not to put the credibility of another on the line and then damage that person’s reputation.  Another is to not commit until and unless you are prepared to stand behind that commitment.   There are always choices.  But too often, in these encounters, the person of character becomes the object of barbs, insults and disrespect:  none of which is earned but all of which is done so that those not of character can justify (to themselves and others) their actions.  Actions that too often reek of self-interest, expedience, and frankly, cowardice.


Is this fair?  Right?  Just?  No, it’s not.  But it is reality.  Truth.  And it must be addressed from that perspective.


So what happens to the person of character?  What happens to the people to whom the commitment was made and then broken?  And what happens to the offenders–the users, losers, and abusers?


That depends.


The person of character can choose to remain a person of character.  To insist that the right thing be done.  At times, this person acts as the group’s conscience.  The group could change, decide to stand up, make the right choices that respect all concerned.


The person of character can choose to go along with the group.  To hope that over time s/he can influence the group constructively.  To encourage others to treat all concerned with respect.  To fight the good fight–knowing he could meet with success or dismal failure.


These battles, the person of character chooses carefully.  Some battles are worth fighting.  Some are lost before they’re begun, and to know which is which requires attention being paid to that internal compass.


The person of character can fold.  Can accept that this situation will not change and, not being an island, choose to take a different path so that s/he doesn’t become a loser, abuser, or user.  Sometimes doing what is best requires us to walk away, like in the situation with the teen.


We’re often warned to choose our associates carefully.  The wisdom in that comes from knowing that we assimilate and measure (we judge and are judged) by the traits of those with whom we associate.  Take abuse, for example.  If it’s alien to us, we’re horrified by it.  But if it’s ordinary and common to us, it’s normal.  We become anesthetized to that to which we are exposed.


If we surround ourselves with those who lack morals, ethics and integrity, then that becomes normal to us.  That makes the bottom line for each of us a matter of choice:  what do we choose to be our normal?


What kind of people do we want to be?  Persons of substance, or substances lacking character?


Every decision we make–not just the big ones, or the little ones, but every decision we make–becomes a part of our personal fabric.  It weaves into our perceptions and beliefs and when we view the whole, helps us redefine ourselves.  We are constantly in a state of rebirth, and that’s a good thing.  It keeps change on the table as a constant option.  We need this.  We’re human, we’re flawed, we make mistakes.  We need that option, those chances to change.


We learn as we go in life.  We experience encounters, live the consequences of our actions and inactions (which are truly also actions), assess and analyze.  We think about the results and determine the values, good or bad, in the experience.  Then we choose and change and choose and change as the need to do so arises.  Or we cop out and choose not to change because it’s easier.  But the chances remain intact, still there, waiting for the moment we see the light and seize them.


Those to whom the commitments were made and broken will survive.  They could endure hardships, suffer consequences not of their making, but they will rise above these challenges and come out stronger and wiser because of the experience.  Personal growth forges character in such ways.


Of that I’m as certain as I am that those who wronged them will suffer the consequences of their actions.  In due season, we all reap what we sow.  We all live with the choices we make, with the reality we create.  If we use, there will come a time when we will be used.  If we lack compassion, there will come a time when we need and do not receive compassion.  It’s immutable universal law, proven, enduring–it is truth.  Personal growth also forges character in these ways, and it does take a lot of heat to temper steel.  It takes a lot of heat to temper character, too.


As human beings, we are all on different journeys and paths and at different levels of development on emotional and spiritual levels.  Those on the lowest rungs of the ladder climb, slip back, and climb again.  Those higher up on the ladder, reach down a rung or two and offer a hand to help lift others.  And those on the highest ladder rungs do what they can when they can in ways only they can to help the rest of us extend our reach, climb a little higher, develop character so that like them, we can be people of substance.


Encounters, I believe, are designed to offer us all opportunities for personal growth.  Those higher up willingly endure challenges to give us the chance to make good decisions, to gain wisdom and/or insight that serves us.  To experience so that we feel and grasp the impact of our actions on others. To grow.


We all influence, we all are influenced.  We’re not islands.  And because we do and we’re not, we either impact others and ourselves positively or negatively.  Constructively or destructively.


So the point of this article is to bring that to the forefront in thoughts–mine and yours.  To remind myself and you that so long as we live and breathe, we have encounters.  At times, we’re low man or woman on the ladder, reaching up, and at times we’re higher up, reaching down, extending a hand to others.


We reach.  We extend.  We choose.


We choose to be or become people of substance.  Wiser and stronger because we have morals and ethics and standards–even when they are inconvenient.  Even when the costs to us are high.  We choose to value truth, even if it costs us a contract, a job, a promotion or a friend.  We choose to value character, understanding that it is lasting, a real treasure worth embracing.


Or we choose to be substance lacking character and its treasures.   If we have a little trouble meeting our eyes in the mirror or sleeping well at night, well, we  rationalize, justify, and compensate by blaming others for the way we are, for what we’ve become, and we absolve ourselves from responsibility until it stares us down and demands reform.  Then we reform or do our best to kill our conscience.


If we succeed, we survive but we’ve lost our humanity.  That’s a tough life for a person who isn’t an island.


Either way, we choose.  Either way, we live with our choices.


I close with this question, which I ask of myself as well as of you:  Today, will you be a person of character, or a character lacking humanity?


It is about choice and substance.


It is all about character… ❦


About Vicki Hinze
USA Today Bestselling and Award-Winning Author of 40+ books, short stories/novellas and hundreds of articles. Published in as many as 63 countries. Featured Columnist for Social-IN Worldwide Network and Book Fun Magazine. Sponsor/Founder of & FMI visit

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