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Why Strong Character Is a Foundation of Resilience

This interview with Dr. David Wang explores character development & resilience.

Today I continue in my series of interviews with experts on how resilience—one of the major themes of my book, A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience—connects to their area of study. Today’s interview is on the subject of character development and resilience and features Dr. David C. Wang, Associate Professor of Psychology at the Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University. A licensed psychologist, he also serves as a pastor of spiritual formation at One Life City Church, as well as at several non-profits in various capacities.

David Wang, used with permission
Source: David Wang, used with permission

JA: How do you personally define character development?

DW: People have been thinking about character and character development for millennia, and it has inspired some very thoughtful scholarship in quite a number of academic disciplines. For example, Rachana Kamtekar, professor of philosophy at Cornell University, speaks of how contemporary virtue ethicists tend to speak of virtue as a sort of harmony between what we rationally believe to be the right thing to do and our natural affections or natural desire to do it. What I like about this thought is that it acknowledges the unflattering reality that just because we know what the right thing is to do, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is also what we fundamentally want to do, nor that it is even what we ultimately choose to do. And so, Aristotle reminds us in the Nicomachean Ethics that the goal of virtuous character isn’t just to know what virtue is but to become good. So, putting this all together, I understand character development to be the journey we take to not only know what is good, but to choose what is good, and (this just might be the hardest part of it all) to earnestly and wholeheartedly desire and take pleasure in what is good.

JA: How did you first get interested in studying character development?

DW: In addition to my academic and clinical work, I’m also a pastor of a local congregation. And ironically, what had gotten me initially interested in studying character development was a few really horrible ministry experiences early on in life. While religious education is generally understood to cultivate character, so many of us (myself included) are profoundly familiar with the pain inflicted by thoroughly religiously educated individuals who yet suffer from major character deficits. How can someone who knows the good so well still have such a capacity to do evil? This was the question that has led me to where I am today and where I hope to be in the future.

JA: What is the connection between character development and resilience?

DW: Linda Zagzebski, Chair of Philosophy of Religion and Ethics at the University of Oklahoma, described intellectual virtues as “forms of motivation to have cognitive contact with reality.” Although she was speaking here of intellectual virtues in particular, I think it would be fair to say that there is something about virtue, in general, and how it cultivates in us a disposition towards facing or having contact with reality—whatever it might be (e.g., the reality of ourselves, of others, of our situation, etc.). And here is where I believe the connection between character development and resilience lies. Resilience can be understood as a person’s capacity to overcome difficulty, or to recover and ‘bounce back’ from trauma. Unfortunately, many people think that the key to overcoming difficulty is to simply to maintain a positive attitude. But the problem is that this positive attitude also needs to be in contact with the reality of the situation, which is often quite bleak. If it is not, this positivity can turn rigid and degenerate into avoidance, which is what research has found to be a powerful predictor of poor adjustment post-trauma. Thus, character is the glue that binds positive attitudes and behavior with a realism that is grounded in the needs and realities of a broken situation.

JA: What are some ways people might cultivate character strengths to help them live more resiliently?

DW: Continuing what I was speaking on previously, I think the key to cultivating character strengths is the courage to face reality: the reality of ourselves, the reality of others, the reality of our situation. And this is why I believe themes such as guilt and shame are so counterproductive in the cultivation of character. People use guilt and shame to shape behavior because they are so effective. Guilt motivates us through fear, and shame leads us to cover up and hide our true selves. But virtue is not just about doing what is good, but also earnestly desiring it as well. And we can’t do the latter through fear and hiding. We can’t do the latter without first coming to terms with the reality of ourselves.

JA: Can you share what you’re working on these days related to character development?

DW: I’m leading a series of grant projects funded by the John Templeton Foundation on the character and spiritual development of seminary students—individuals who will one day become the leaders of local churches and parishes, denominations, and non-profit organizations (click here and here for more information). We have partnered with the Association of Theological Schools and are presently ramping up efforts to conduct longitudinal research on the character and spiritual development of seminary students enrolled at 14 Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Mainline Protestant, and historically African-American seminaries. We are excited to empirically investigate topics such as 1) to what extent does religious education shape character, 2) what about religious education shapes character, and 3) what is the relationship, if any, between spiritual development and character development?

JA: Anything else you’d care to share?

DW: Despite all the tragedy that we witness and hear about, I am continually amazed at how remarkably resilient and virtuous people can be—and often from people that garner little attention from the news, from people that we might least expect. I am grateful for opportunities to bring to light the stories and realities of some of these individuals, so that we may all be inspired and edified.