Everyone has strengths. But many people have not learned to realize their strengths for different reasons. A person may develop in a household where the parents are depressed, hopeless, beleaguered financially, or struggling with unresolved trauma or addiction. Many people grow up in families that are too weary or busy to express their appreciation for and to nurture their children’s strengths. Some parents may focus on a child or teen’s vulnerabilities out of fears or insecurities of their own. Our problems often consume our thinking and cloud our judgment about our talents, gifts, ideals, and strengths. When I was a young social worker, I loved the concept of “learned helplessness” (Martin Seligman) that was one explanation for hopelessness and depression; it taught me to feel empathy for people who felt others saw them through eyes of skepticism resulting in their own self-doubt and mistrust of others. Seligman then authored a book on learned optimism. We have to be realistic, but we can develop the habits of seeing the good in others and ourselves.
We all value positive character strengths and virtues and they are a core element of identity. But these can often seem vague and ill-defined rendering us more vulnerable to identifying with our problems. A useful tool in helping me to conceptualize identity and character strengths and their essential goodness has been the book Character Strengths and Virtues by Christopher Peterson and Martin E.P. Seligman, published in 2004. It is a 700-page handbook for what is termed “positive psychology.” It lists 24 universal character traits that are universally valued by humanity across all cultures. Some of these are courage, fairness, forgiveness, mercy, humility, kindness, love, gratitude, self-control, and honesty. None of us have these traits 100%, but we can desire and pursue them and notice these traits in others. We can help others realize the times when they have experienced and demonstrated these traits. They are traits that can bond us together when we feel increasingly divided by the problems of life. Peterson and Seligman call their study “the Manual of the Sanities.” Their last strength is transcendence, or the belief that we as humans flourish when we realize that there is a greater force and power outside of ourselves; that we need Other and others to apprehend even weakly these strengths to flourish in life. The universality of these definitions of goodness suggest that we were created by a good God whose essence holds these qualities as His own.