Sounds cheesy, but I was listening to my favorite album this morning, and it kind of made me think of you.
Don’t break character
You got a lot of heart
Is it real or just a dream?
Rise up like the sun
Labor til the work is done.
The song is written as a father talking to his child about maintaining determination in the face of setbacks, frustrations and being misunderstood or slandered. It’s stunningly beautiful.
There’s a double meaning to that first line. “Breaking character” is what an actor does when she does something that fits with her real life, but not the character she is playing, within a performance. When an actor cracks up in the middle of a scene over a mistake that another actor made, or shows embarrassment over forgetting a line, that’s called breaking character.
The song, however, layers on another meaning: that of giving in, allowing one’s fundamental integrity to be compromised, especially when you’re surrounded by bad behavior, by people making choices and trying to push you to make choices, that do not reinforce the character that you have, or that, at least, you aspire to.
People who work to make communities better have to fight against both kinds of breaking character. In the public setting, you have to remain always the professional, always objective, always dispassionate–even when the public and elected officials yell and accuse and spread misinformation. Your cannot respond in kind, not matter how strongly you feel. And in that situation, you often feel intensely, violently. But you cannot break character.
And chances are, at some point in your professional life, you feel some pretty intense pressure to cave on your professional principles, to share a little confidential information, give that applicant a little extra attention, to give that contract to the less qualified but more politically connected supplier.
Sometimes the pressure to break character comes as an enticement, an offer, a way to make your life a little easier. Sometimes it comes as a threar, or a way to avoid an ugly consequence. But whichever way it comes, the pressure to break the integrity of your professional character inevitably comes.
The fact that so few cave to that pressure says a lot about Why This Work Matters.