*This is my first post in this series, and already I’m changing it around a bit! I changed the title to Character Reflections. Probably more experimenting in the months to follow…
Something that has really been catching my attention in the books I read and movies I watch lately are characters (in particular female) who seem to be so self-possessed. I think this has been on my mind of late because it is an important character trait I’ve discovered I was totally lacking in, and have been studying and growing this area the last several months. I often find that when I’m learning something new, whether it be a new word, a new topic, etc., I keep running into it. Maybe it’s because I’m more aware of it now than I used to be!
By self-possession, I’m talking about a person who knows who they are, knows their own mind, stands their ground and doesn’t waver on their convictions. Someone who knows how and where to set boundaries. This is a strong, admirable trait to have. You know what defines you, what you like and don’t like, what interests you and what doesn’t, or at least you’re in the process of learning and exploring! You decide what you can compromise on or not, what you will accept from others, what you won’t. You also decide what your values are, and you don’t turn into a mushy chameleon when you come across a situation that threatens to redefine you. It’s called having convictions. What is the point of having convictions if we let go of them in the face of some opposition?
In the Book of Proverbs 31, we read of an admirable lady described as being clothed with ‘strength and dignity.’ I like that phrase. What do you picture in your mind’s eye when you think of a woman clothed in strength and dignity? I see a woman shining with internal beauty, with a self-controlled, calm and satisfied smile on her face. She is comfortable with herself and able to respond in healthy ways to others.
I particularly want to zero in on the word dignity. A good definition for dignity is: bearing, conduct, or speech indicative of self-respect. Self-respect- that’s key here. You have to know yourself, like yourself, appreciate yourself, esteem yourself, and ultimately respect yourself. All of which results in a character of dignity. Why am I choosing female characters in particular who model self-possession and dignity? Don’t I think men can act with dignity? Of course. But I’m leaning female here probably because A)- I’m a woman and read many books where the lead character is female. But B)- also because I think women tend to naturally sell themselves short.
There are lots of good quality heroines out there who exhibit this strong character trait. And believe me, it does take strength to stand by yourself! There’s a world out there full of people and circumstances that will tempt us to abandon ourselves, leading us to believe lies that if we’re different, we’re somehow not worth it. Or that if you stand by what’s important to you, you’re selfish (another lie). When we refuse to abandon ourselves, we won’t be so easily manipulated by others. Like Anne in “Persuasion,” by Jane Austen. When the story begins, we soon learn that Anne is miserable over a decision she made years ago to be persuaded by a mother-figure to abandon her heart. This aunt or family friend (I can’t remember which) was not an enemy, but a well-intending friend. Well-meaning people in our lives are the hardest to say no to and set boundaries with. We care about them and they care about us! But we need to know ourselves and take care of what’s our responsibility or else we will always be unhappy, wondering why no one takes us seriously, why we feel like the juvenile who needs to be babysat, why people think we need them to make our decisions for us, why we feel inferior. The word codependent comes to mind. Anne’s decision could have never had a second chance, but fortunately for our heroine there was later an opportunity to right it. Not everyone has that chance. How much happiness are we giving up, potentially life altering happiness, because we are being driven along by someone else’s definition of who we are and what we need?
Pollyanna comes to mind. In “Pollyanna Grows Up by Eleanor H. Porter” (sequel to “Pollyanna”), our heroine is in the middle of a love triangle. The one she truly loves has just proposed, but she knows there are potentially two other men who love her. One is a previously jilted lover, the other lacks the use of his legs. Pollyanna has such a compassionate heart for those who are hurting and less fortunate, but this tenderness goes overboard when she comes dangerously close to forfeiting her life’s happiness away! Although humorous, Pollyanna tells her true love that before promising to marry him, she will wait to see if the jilted lover will propose because she feels so sorry for him she will have to say yes! It’s a good thing her Mr. Right is so ridiculously patient!
One of the things I’ve been noticing in myself is that the more I learn to respect myself, the more certain things become anathema to me. Things like negative self-talk (calling myself stupid or ding-dong or fat); certain behaviors like juvenile arguments over petty things; or wearing certain clothes (stuff that makes me feel frumpy and ugly, or clothes that reveal too much). I learn to care for myself better.
I believe a person of self-respect means being a very secure individual as well. Being secure doesn’t drive you to be desperate or compulsive or to sell your soul or body to something or someone. We can think in small or extreme instances. It could be a girl giving all she has to her boyfriend because she thinks no one else will have her. This is often a sad occurrence. I wish so much that girl could learn to value herself, and realize she doesn’t need someone else to define her. It’s a type of slavery! I’m not talking Women’s Lib here, I’m talking about not giving what’s important to you away because you don’t think you’re worth better. Or it could be you’re afraid of another person’s anger. Fear of anger controls a person and soon you are going against your own grain and putting yourself under their rule of thumb. That is a type of slavery, too. Something I’m definitely working on. It’s hard work!!
When you recognize yourself as having great value, you begin to treat yourself as such. Soon others will see a difference, whether or not they can put a finger on it or accept it. Being a person of dignity means there will be conflict. But what’s a good story without conflict? That’s how heroines are made! A person of self-respect recognizes what hurts them and takes measures to protect themselves. In the book, “Fatal Deduction,” by Gayle Roper, single mother Libby has learned to set a lot of boundaries to protect herself and her daughter from the negative influences of her family and ex-boyfriend Eddie. I can’t imagine how difficult and lonely this must be for someone going it alone! It definitely takes a lot of courage, esp. when you’re dealing with unhealthy family relationships. When she realizes that the poisonous attitudes of her mother and grandmother, the wounding ulterior motives of her sister, and the selfish actions of Eddie are not healthy for them, Libby limits time with them (and in the case of Eddie, totally breaks off contact). Instead, she makes new, healthy relationships with caring neighbors.
Although this is the toughest of all tough situations, a person who sticks by their God-given convictions will be willing to die for them, such as in the timid yet tried and true character of Hadassah in “A Voice in the Wind,” by Francine Rivers. This young slave girl had many opportunities to take the easy road. In the thick of debauched Rome, handsome Marcus is tempting her in the matter of sexuality, and the hostile attitude of those against Christianity makes her feel afraid to admit her faith. Yet she takes a stand for her love for God, and decides to remain faithful to what she knows in her heart she has been called toward- purity and devotion to her Savior.
Most books are written about young and beautiful heroines. But dignity can make a heroine out of anyone (unless you’re a guy, of course! Ha ha). In the book I am currently reading, “The Amethyst Heart,” by Penelope Stokes we have the admirable character of Amethyst Noble, a woman of dignity and self-possession at 93 years of age. Though an old lady, this woman knows her own mind and what her life stands for, and won’t back down even to her irresponsible son, Conrad. This legacy of strength was passed on down to her from her grandparents, and throughout the course of the story Amethyst gets the opportunity to pass it in turn to her great-granddaughter. What a wonderful inheritance to receive and what an everlasting treasure that will remain when all else fades!
Sometimes staying true to yourself is rough and hard. It’s something to learn and practice, and I am learning to accept my attempts to progress even when not perfect. But I know how utterly miserable it can be when you abandoned you own desires, feelings, and convictions. You begin to not know who you are, what you want, what you feel anymore. No matter how hard it is, there is more freedom in staying true to yourself and your convictions than there is in selling out to every whim of doctrine, every pushy person, every hip trend, or every decision handed out by the Supreme Court.
Nothing maddens me more than when I recognize a character in a situation where they are giving away their freedom to someone else. I don’t get mad at the character themselves really, it’s just I’m angry at the situation they aren’t able to see themselves in. Or maybe they can see it, but are unable to help themselves. This could be in the fictional realm, or in the real world. You see it in the news all the time.
I used to be there myself. Sometimes I still relapse and go back to my old habits. But I am getting more free everyday, and that’s what counts!
What are your favorite heroines who exhibit self-possession with dignity?
Other fine reading on related subjects: