Because we all have flaws, the most important struggle in which we must engage is with ourselves. The Rabbis defined a hero not as someone who leads people into battle or who prevails in a fight, but as "one who subdues his [evil] inclination." Thus while popular culture defines heroism as prevailing over others, the Rabbis define it as prevailing over oneself.
The Book of Proverbs offers the most basic biblical teaching on self-control; "One who controls his passions is better than one who conquers a city" (16:32).
John Jay (1743-1829), the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, expressed a similar thought. After losing the 1792 gubernatorial race in New York … he wrote his wife: "A few more years will put us all in the dust, and it will then be of more importance to me to have governed myself than to have governed the state."
In order to struggle successfully with yourself, you must know your character intimately, and be aware of your faults. To achieve this self-awareness, sit down with pen and paper — this exercise will be painful — and write down what you feel are your most obvious character flaws and weaknesses:
- Am I prone to anger? When I am angry, do I overreact and say or do things that inflict pain on others? Or am I the sort of person who, if asked, will deny that I am angry, yet will treat other people with coldness, disdain, and annoyance?
- Do I judge others fairly, or am I harshly critical (both in what I say and what I think)?
- Am I stingy with my money or my time?
- Do I speak curtly, making people feel that I have no time for them? (This is unkind, even if we are busy.)
- Do I avoid saying or doing what I believe is right because I fear how others will react or what they will think of me? (The question we should ask ourselves is not "What will others think?" but "What does God want me to do?")
- Am I moody? Do I make people around me feel that they are somehow responsible for my moods? Does my unhappiness affect the atmosphere in my home, transforming, often in a matter of minutes, a general feeling of pleasantness and good will into one of tension and sadness? (Taking away the good mood of those around us and lowering their spirits is a cruel, even if unintentional, act of aggression.)
- Do I treat strangers with more consideration than members of my own family?
- Do I take other people's kind behavior for granted, or do I go out of my way to express thanks and help those who have been kind to me?
- Do I blame my wrongful actions and mistakes on others, or do I take responsibility for the wrong I do?
- Do I jump to conclusions and blame other people before I know all the facts?
- Am I able to control my impulses, or do I give into temptation easily?
- Do I bear grudges and remain angry at others for a long time after an argument?
- Am I tardy, and thereby waste other people's time by keeping them waiting?
- Do I rationalize dishonesty with excuses such as "Business is different?"
- When I hear of other people's sufferings or misfortunes, do I find ways to help them, or do I feel sadness in my heart but do nothing?
- Am I jealous of the success of others? Do I begrudge others their good fortune?
Once you have drawn up your list, do not become discouraged, even if you find that you have many weaknesses. Drawing up a list is the first and most important step in changing your character for the better.
Work on improving one quality at a time. If you try to work on several areas at once, you may become over-whelmed, and give up.— in A Jewish Code of Ethics by Joseph Telushkin