“What better way to honor a legacy than to emulate it.” Those were the words that caught me as former President Barack Obama delivered his eulogy for Senator John McCain. I paused to take them in. I dissected them. And it made me question what would make a legacy worth emulating.
I’ve spent the last week and a half thinking about it. And the one thing I keep coming back to is having good character.
That was a quality John McCain undoubtedly possessed. I recalled the moment I heard about his passing and how my social media feeds flooded with condolences, offerings of gratitude for his service as a soldier and a statesman, and stories about memorable past encounters—from people who even disagreed with his politics.
That night, I started to watch videos from his two runs for president and I understood why. In a video from a town hall meeting during his 2007-2008 run, McCain came to the defense of Obama, his then-opponent, by rejecting calls from supporters that Obama was an Arab, should be feared, and couldn’t be trusted. He simply told them, “He’s just a decent, family man, citizen who I happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
Later, I watched a statement he made on the confederate flag issue after an appearance in South Carolina during his first presidential run in 2000. While trying to maintain neutrality in the Palmetto State, he dodged a question about his personal views on the issue. Feeling it was dishonest, he wanted the opportunity to share his views without mincing words. He declared that, although he felt his ancestors fought with courage for a cause they believed in, they fought on the “wrong side of American history” and that it should not be commemorated in such a way.
We live in a society where it’s so easy to blur the lines of truth, skirt blame, and take a backseat when someone tries to legitimize false claims or tear others down to prove a point. But he chose not to do those things. And it seemed to be an innate response.
Those moments on the campaign trail showed me more about McCain’s character than anything I’d read about him up until that point. I saw him not only as a man of courage and bravery, but one of integrity and conviction. A man who saw the value in his words. A man who gave respect where it was due. A man of honesty. A man of virtue.
Those sentiments were echoed by not only former President Obama, but friends, family, and other colleagues who remembered the Maverick during his funeral. And through it all, we could see just how important having good character was to McCain.
Why Character Matters
In the months after McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer, his daughter Meghan told the audience and her fellow co-hosts on The View that one of the biggest lessons she learned from her dad was that character matters.
McCain even wrote a book called Character Is Destiny in 2005. In the introduction, he writes about how God gives us our lives and our character determines how well or how poorly we choose to live them. He goes on to say this:
It is your character, and your character alone, that will make your life happy or unhappy. That is all that really passes for destiny. And you choose it. No one else can give it to you or deny it to you. No rival can steal it from you. And no friend can give it to you. Others can encourage you to make the right choices or discourage you. But you choose.
Your happiness is at stake in every difficult decision you must make about what kind of person you will be: honest or deceitful; responsible or unreliable; brave or cowardly; kind or cruel.
Your talents have little to do with it. Your looks don’t matter at all. You don’t need to be good at sports. You don’t need to be popular with other kids. You need not be smarter than others. Those things are nice and useful and pleasing. But they won’t by themselves make you happy. Looks change. People for no good reason can sometimes treat us unfairly, and friends come and go as our lives take us to new schools, different jobs, and faraway places. Our strength and speed and agility grow for a few years, and then, for most of our lives, we get weaker, slower, and clumsier.
However smart we are, there are always other people who know more than us.
There’s a famous quote that says, “Our true character is that person we become when no one is watching.” I believe that. It is in moments alone that we develop our character. When we quietly sit with our thoughts before making decisions. When our minds walk the fine lines to decide what we believe to be right and wrong. When the wheels turn as we decide whether we really care about what the right thing is.
As a Christian, I believe our character is important because it shows who we are at our core. It shows what is in our hearts. The hearts God calls on us to keep with vigilance—because from them flow the springs of life (Proverbs 4:23). And having good character is about doing our best to choose the things that reflect the goodness of God’s character and the righteousness in the life of Jesus Christ.
The Bible says we build good character as we endure suffering (Romans 3-4). I see that as hanging on and doing the thing that is both right and good, in spite of our suffering—which can be hard. Though I believe God can change our hearts and help in building the good character traits that take root within us, the choice to seek his wisdom and guidance in that area is always ours. We choose to focus on the goodness. We choose to the pursue good things. We choose to do the good things. And it all glorifies God, which is always the primary goal.
A Legacy Worth Emulating
Through the years, John McCain developed qualities that many associated with the strength of his character. Here are five that inspire me as I continue the work to build my own character:
Believe in something greater than yourself.
Not only did McCain believe in God, he took on a cause that was not defined by him alone. He believed in the best of America and its people, and fought for them.
Love people and value their stories.
McCain didn’t have to share the same beliefs and experiences with a person to show them love and respect. He appreciated their differences and tried to connect on common ground.
Be willing to admit when you’re wrong or when you don’t know something.
As a congressman and presidential candidate, McCain valued the truth, and that included telling the truth about anything he may have done wrong and fessing up when he didn’t have all the answers.
Be willing to cross the aisle sometimes.
Sometimes compromise is necessary. As a man of the military and a career politician, McCain knew that. He listened to those who disagreed with worked to find what he believed to be the best solution.
Many people have fear and it cripples them. They think having courage signals the absence of fear. But McCain said it is instead the capacity to act despite our fears. He strove to do that and often called on others to do the same.
I think these five things made John McCain’s life good and beautiful, despite all his mistakes, his losses, and the criticism he faced. And they make his legacy one worth emulating.