Healthy character development is both a prerequisite and an adjunct to achieving closeness to God. There are many texts on the subject to be pored over as we strive to grow. They offer insights and tools for change. But they aren’t the sole means of personal growth. Sometimes our life experiences lead us to “aha” moments and new ways of being. And sometimes the lives of (seemingly) ordinary people are the most inspirational of all. These are people who don’t obviously possess extraordinary gifts yet demonstrate unusual strength, courage and conviction when put to the test.

I read two dramatically different books recently that each affected me in profound ways, that encouraged me to feel that I had untapped strength and potential, that pushed me to strive for more.

One was After the Fire by Robin Gaby Fisher, the story of the friendship and courage of two college roommates who were severely burned in the January 2000 fire at Seton Hall University. With very limited financial resources yet with tremendous family and medical support, they transcended the excruciating pain of burn treatment (those passages in the book are truly harrowing), the grueling physical rehabilitation and the soul-numbing stares of strangers.

Throughout it all, their commitment to each other and to the opportunities of life remained strong. For those brief moments (and hopefully for a little while after) as I read their story, I put aside my trivial complaints to focus on the big picture and to recognize the blessing in my life -- with joy. Their courage and resilience inspired me to dig deeper, to reach higher.

On a totally different track, The Power of Half by Kevin Salwen and his daughter, Hannah, had a profound impact of another kind. Kevin Salwen is a former writer for the Wall Street Journal and perhaps many of you are already familiar with his story. Both Mr. Salwen and his wife had pursued fast-track jobs and achieved tremendous financial and professional success. They lived with their two children in a very large, historic home in Atlanta. Although they did give back to the community, it was in relatively small ways especially in proportion to their acquisitions and the time spent in their pursuit (this is not my interpretation; this is Mr. Salwen’s own description)

Their daughter was initially deemed the idealist in the family and when, stopped at a red light one day, she noticed a Mercedes on one side and a homeless man on the other, she was jarred by the juxtaposition. With all the enthusiasm and lack of experience of a teenager (!), she commented that “if that man had a less nice car, that man could have a meal.”

Although the world doesn’t usually operate in those simplistic terms, in the Salwen family’s situation, it basically did.

Hannah’s idealism was contagious and the family ultimately decided to sell the house and give half the proceeds to the charitable project of their choice.

The book is worth reading as the family grapples with the decision and the choices that follow in its aftermath, both individually and collectively.

And it makes you think. How much material excess do I have? Or conversely, what do I really need? How could I better help others? Maybe I have some time excess, some wasted moments that could be put to better use.

I’m not selling my house (the bank owns most of it anyway!) but perhaps there are smaller ways that I could be more giving, more cognizant and thoughtful of the needs of others.

How much poverty and misery do I turn a blind eye to? The Power of Half is a mussar (spiritual development) book in the truest sense of the word since it accomplishes the goal of introspection, evaluation and, please God, change.

I haven’t decided my course of action yet (I was thinking one pair of shoes for the homeless, one for me!) but I’m thinking about it. I recognize that if I don’t do something concrete, it’s all just empty words (mind that is, not theirs) so I’m trying. I’m think baby steps, one at a time. One more check. Five more minutes of giving. Moving slowly along the road to being different, and thereby making a difference.