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Actions Tell Much about Character

The test of our metal often comes when least expected.

Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart: Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens. -- C. G. Jung

One evening, back in college, a friend and I decided to take a break from our studies to get a snack. The night was still as I drove, the sky completely black. As we turned the corner, my headlights suddenly shone on a young man walking into the middle of the street: he was naked and desperately signaling for us to stop. When we did, he told us he had been riding his bike when four fellows driving by in a car jumped him. They stripped him, stole his bike and wallet, and left him to fend for himself. As we drove him to a local hospital, my mind reeled from everything I had just seen and heard. Though my automatic response led me to come through for him, I found myself later thinking, I sure hope someone would stop for me if something like this ever happened to me.”

For decades so-called “Good Samaritan Tests” have been performed in seminaries, schools, and on street settings to see if people would go out of their way to help someone in distress. Most of these experiments found the majority of people will lend a hand as long as they have time. A person in a hurry is less likely to stop. Perhaps the Scripture would have had a different story to tell if the man traveling from Samaria had come upon the man in need while the Samaritan was running late for a business meeting.

Whatever else these experiments may tell us, it is clear that our actions are not solely motivated by regard for time but consciousness to do the right thing. Certainly our reactions in response to those in need can tell us much about ourselves. At any given time a range of motives, such as the desire to be helpful or the need to feel powerful, may be at work. However, by attuning to our soul, we can better understand the impulses that drive us to actions that affirm our Truth.

I am reminded of the moving film Brother Sun, Sister Moon, that retold the story of St. Francis of Assisi, the Roman Catholic 14th Century monastic visionary. An unusually sensitive and positive boy for his age, Francis was drawn to Jesus’ message of simplicity, poverty, and love, and found joy and meaning in his life through living his faith. However, his serious efforts to implement his values created concern, not only within the “religious” culture in which he grew up but also from his own father and the church leadership. Having pursued the Spirit beyond conventional religious expression, he provoked religious authorities. St. Francis was ridiculed, mocked, and eventually persecuted.

Francis requested to plea his case before the pope for living literally as Jesus instructed in poverty and simplicity. The humble, shabbily clothed Francis was given audience with the pope in the enormously materialistic and worldly setting of the Papal palace. Literally weighed down by the gold, pomp, and excess of the papacy during this period, the pope barely heard Francis’ plea as he was whisked away by the papal curia and guards. However, as if rekindling a flame long extinguished within the elderly pope’s heart from the political weight of the system led, the pope stopped his exit and recalled Francis to speak.

Now listening to Francis’ request, the pope reflected on the living Spirit that had escaped him for so long that he momentarily captured once again. Awakened to act, he embraced St. Francis and kissed his feet, sanctifying the truth that the monk had proclaimed. Although the pope was lifted and taken away by his bishops and guards, dramatically symbolizing the distance of the system from the message in this film, St. Francis’ mission was ultimately blessed and he was encouraged to go forth and live as an example to others.

St. Francis’ good intentions were awakened from within—and he took good action. Opportunities like this are not rare and occur for each of us everyday. Though they often occur when least expected, we pass the Good Samaritan Test when we spontaneously take Good action. Ultimately, like St. Francis and the pope, our actions determine our character. Our response in such instances may automatically be driven to the extent to which we are driven from what’s alive inside.

John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D. is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of True Coming of Age: A Dynamic Process That Leads to Emotional Stability, Spiritual Growth, and Meaningful Relationships. For more information please visit, and