In his recent book The Road to Character, New York Times columnist David Brooks addresses questions about character. What is it? How is it formed and nurtured? These are urgent questions for our times, as our nation, indeed the whole world, struggles with violence and an ever-widening gap between the “haves” and the “have nots”.
I am a fan of Brooks’ writing and viewpoints. In general, his political views are more conservative than mine, but he is a thinking person’s conservative, a welcome Reasonable Right voice. His ideas are well-considered, rational, with much to offer levelheaded people who are searching for workable consensus in this age of extreme political polarization. Hence, when Brooks writes, I read!
The Road to Character begins with an apt means of classifying virtues. Résumé virtues, says Brooks, are the skills that contribute to external success. Eulogy virtues are the qualities at the core of your being, the ones that get talked about at your funeral. He points out that most of us would say the latter are more important, but we spend far more time cultivating the former. The chapters that follow explore the lives of a divergent set of historical figures, from Dwight Eisenhower to George C. Marshall, Dorothy Day to St. Augustine, Johnny Unitas to Joe Namath, showing how character arises under extremely different circumstances.
As usual, many of Brooks’ ideas immediately ring true. I was doing just fine until Chapter Ten, where he explores what he calls the era of “The Big Me”. This chapter outlines the change in the moral climate following World War II, showing how it shifted from the selflessness of the Greatest Generation to an increased emphasis on pride and self-esteem in the ’50’s and ’60’s. Still fine: inarguably, this is what happened. He points out that this shift helped address inequalities, encouraging “members of oppressed groups to believe in themselves”. Brooks says this shift changed the working definition of “character“. “It is less used to describe traits like selflessness, generosity, self-sacrifice…instead used to describe traits like self-control, resilience, and tenacity, qualities that make worldly success more likely.”
As Brooks continues, though, his “Big Me” description seems to imply that people with choice will choose selfishly. Surely that is sometimes, perhaps even often, true, but there is not necessarily a direct causal link as the chapter seems to imply. In our society, we are surrounded by countless examples of “self-actualized”, “Big Me” people who choose to contribute to the greater good even though they could choose, instead, to follow a course of constant self-gratification.
What sticks in my craw is that even a reasonable, thoughtful person like David Brooks can somehow underestimate and understate the inequalities lurking behind his admonitions about developing character. True, he briefly acknowledges the significance of inequality. However, while his characterization of The Big Me as necessary but gone too far may have value, it skews the issues, especially for women and other less-empowered groups of people. I keep having the niggling thought that so much of the “selflessness” of earlier times was borne on the backs of countless women and other marginalized groups of earlier society. They did not get to choose whether or not to be selfless: in so many ways they were denied any true sense of self. The best they could do was work within the parameters of their circumstances. “The Big Me” put them on the map, giving them the permission to define themselves instead of having their fates parceled out to them. Hence, to encourage us – all of us – to reassert traditional selfless values seems somehow hypocritical, asking those who have already sacrificed so much of themselves to buck up and resume putting themselves at the bottom of the list.
Women and other disempowered groups have been living selfless lives and values since the time of Eve. Most of us in those categories do not need to reassert selflessness: the balance we need is to be sure we’re even part of the equation, and then, that we are being true to our deep core selves, the True Selves within. It is that True Self that will guide us to our personal best version of “selflessness”, not the version someone else might care to impose on us for their convenience. Brooks alludes to personal truth multiple times throughout the book, but somehow those allusions seem to suggest that inner truth is selfish or shallow; perhaps even misguided. I strongly disagree. Inner Truth — if we can dig deep enough to get to it — is the wisest, most powerful force in the Universe, and it is never selfish.
Read this book. It will make you think. It will inspire you to ask yourself the questions Brooks poses as he begins: “What does life want from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do?” The Humility Code in the final pages will point you “to the most important questions. ‘Toward what should I orient my life? Who am I and what is my nature? What virtues are the most important to cultivate…? ‘ ” Our time here is too short to bumble about in unconsidered ways. We need to make deliberate choices, and then go and do what those choices call us to do.