“A good character is the best tombstone. Those who loved you and were helped by you will remember you when forget-me-nots have withered. Carve your name on hearts, not on marble.” (Charles H. Spurgeon)
Why is our reputation so incredibly important to us and why does it hurt us to the core when it is attacked? Simply stated reputation is “the belief or opinion held about someone or something.”
It is what commends us to others whether they are familiar persons or strangers. In many cultures to harm someone’s reputation is considered a serious offence. We would say that somebody has been “defamed”. To defame from the Lat. diffamare, is to damage the good reputation of another, to literally “spread evil report”. Most people prize their reputation (or “good name”) above all else. Once lost it is difficult to get back. In secular literature the ontological implications of losing one’s reputation is famously described in Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello. In one place the starry-eyed Michael Cassio, Othello’s young lieutenant, unsuspectingly laments to his tormentor: “Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!”
Our reputation is connected to our good name and our “good name” reflects and tells the world who we are and what motivates us. Very often our reputation will precede us: “She can be trusted” or alternatively “He cannot be relied upon”. Sometimes a bad reputation is “earnt” through repeated misdemeanours or behaviours which do not inspire trust. Here, however, our concern is with people with good reputations who have had them damaged through no fault of their own. And this can happen in different ways: through an act of revenge; a reaction to jealousy; an irrational hatred or dislike; in response to anger; a sense of vindication; in the hope of gain; to contradict the argument of an opponent; to belittle or to dismiss the other as irrelevant. Even from a misunderstanding between two previously good friends.
Nowadays, too, there is the distinction between our regular day-to-day reputation and our online reputation increasingly referred to as our “brand name”. Reputation hard earned on the battlefield of life can be superficially built online and so the introduction of social media terms like “reputation commodity” and “reputation management”. The ‘googlefication’ of reputation is only one of the drawbacks of our increasingly electrified lives. Our online reputation can be destroyed by our “adversaries” in a moment. We have no real control over it outside our own contribution to the building of the brand name. We have become consumed with building our online personas, instead of actually building our character, that is, the moral quality which defines us. Saint Augustine has wonderfully expressed it, “character is determined not by knowledge but by what we love.”
How do we respond when we are innocent and our reputations have been besmirched? The natural response is to fight back to let the world know we are not the persons that our defamers are suggesting. We want to quickly restore our reputations. When we can undo what has been done, it is good and proper. But there is another way, especially online where the manipulation of our life histories will potentially wound a great number of us. What is this response? It is not revolutionary on account of it being something new for its practise is ancient, but because it is uniquely inspiring. It has been practised by the majority of those individuals that over time we have held to be examples of the finest representations of human nature. These inspirational human beings were concerned with character. Socrates is an archetypal example: “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear.” As are Saint Mary of Egypt and Ramakrishna and Mahatma Gandhi. And the other great group of prophets who have walked this earth caring naught for fame or fortune. There are two characteristics which fortify the behaviour of these awesome personalities: courage and self-belief.
It is not complete oblivion to our reputation. It is not to say that we do not at all care what people think of us, for we do, but not to be driven by our ego which would make of us a prince when in truth we are a pauper. At other times we might reckon a polished reputation will prove our value to others. That too is futile, for unless our character backs whatever goes before, we will be found out. What is said or written about us should not determine the condition of our interior world or force our hand to respond when the quiet voice speaks to us saying, “…this time, this time let it go.” The truth of who we are cannot be contained. We can pretend to be people that we are not, and others may portray us for that which we are not, but eventually the actuality of who we are will find the way to be revealed. Often enough, even after our passing. In many ancient traditions the reputation of warriors (both mythic and real) was only ever established after the death of the hero. The same goes with the canonization of saints. The process to “authenticate” takes time. It does not happen all of a sudden when we are elected to a high post, or win a great prize, or can show that 100,000 people follow us on Facebook. Earlier there was a reference to the scheming Iago. Surprisingly, he did have wise words to say to the sorely stricken Cassio: “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition: oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.”
For the community of believers, as well, reputation for its own sake is not to be sought in this world where the approval of peers has nothing to do with our commendation “before the judgement seat of the Christ” (2Cor. 5:10). In the New Testament our spirituality, that is our transforming inner being, is established by our character and the fruits which flow from our faith and works (Jm 2:14-26). In Philippians 2:7 is that famous reference of the kenosis (‘the emptying’) of the GodMan of his divine glory, that is, he hides his ‘reputation’ that he may be revealed by his character. And so in one place in the Gospel he asks, “Who do men say that I am?” (Mk 8:27).
“Dear Lord too often I care what my friends or colleagues might think of me. I fret and become anxious that I might disappoint or be found out and that my hard earned reputation is tarnished. Please allow for my heart and mind to have no worry for what the world may believe or make of me, but rather that my first concern is the building of my character which is that eternal part of me.”