The Road To Character

The Road To Character

Only the one who descends into the underworld rescues the beloved. — Kierkegaard.

In his book, The Road to Character, New York Times columnist and author, David Brooks, investigates our culture’s loss of essential virtues that build character; character increasingly necessary to live content and purposeful lives. Brooks has previously written and discussed his thoughts on resume virtues versus eulogy virtues, contending that our society is lopsidedly preoccupied with pursuits of an extrinsic nature and in the process we’ve lost sight of intrinsic values that were once more prevalent. We tend to spend the majority of our lives attaining, and shaping, skills that help us obtain things and gain prestige. As a result we spend less time building our intrinsic, or inner, value system. Brooks references throughout the book, the story of Adam I and Adam II introduced by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his 1965 book, Lonely Man of Faith. Tweaking Soloveitchik’s thoughts on our dual nature, Brooks labels Adam I as the career-oriented, outwardly focused, resume building side of our nature, and Adam II is the internal, morally driven side of our nature.

While Adam I wants to conquer the world, Adam II wants to obey a calling to serve the world. While Adam I is creative and savors his own accomplishments, Adam II sometimes renounces worldly success and status for the sake of some sacred purpose. While Adam I asks how things work, Adam II asks why things exist, and what ultimately we are here for.

There has been a shift over the past century from a community mindset, to a me mindset. Once more concerned with how we can serve church, family, community; now we’re collectively more concerned with self serving, sometimes under the guise of serving others. Clearly this shift from inner to outer values has impacted our society and contributed to the slipping rates of happiness and growing rates of depression and anxiety.

Only by quieting the self could they understand other people and accept what they are offering.

According to Brooks, character is built in the struggle against one’s weakness. Brooks believes the path to quieting the mind is found through considerable self reflection. We must embrace the inner struggle to build the character traits that places higher value on Adam II virtues.In the past:

…there was a moral ecology, stretching back centuries but less prominent now, encouraging people to be more skeptical of their desires, more aware of their own weaknesses, more intent on combating the flaws in their own natures and turning weakness into strength.

We’ve shifted to a Big Me culture, as Brooks puts it. We’ve become the center of our own universe; evident in our daily Facebook posts and Instagram selfie accounts. In 1950, Gallup asked high school seniors if they considered themselves to be very important people, 12 percent said yes. In 2005, 80 percent believed themselves to be very important. One might argue that we’re just raising more self confident young adults, but typically with self confidence comes humility, and the humble don’t rank their importance. In 1976, another survey asked students to rank goals, fame came up 15th out of 16. In 2007, 51 percent ranked fame as one of their top goals.

Humility is freedom from the need to prove you are superior all the time, but egotism is a ravenous hunger in a small space—self-concerned, competitive, and distinction-hungry.Truly humble people are engaged in a great effort to magnify what is best in themselves and defeat what is worst, to become strong in the weak places.

Brooks pokes holes in the current self-fulfillment life strategies that are filling bookstore shelves and being recited in commencement speeches the world round. That message being; follow your passion, trust your feelings, and find your purpose. The questions we’re told to ask of ourselves are: “What is the purpose of my life? What do I want from life? What are the things I truly value, that are not done just to impress or please the people around me?” We take inventory of our gifts and passions, organize goals, map out strategies, measure progress, and if we religiously follow our plan we’ll end up leading a purposeful life.

While a thin distinction, the Adam II type asks questions with a slightly different angle but that can make a large impact on life’s direction. Instead of asking what I want from life, they ask: “What does life want from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do? Where is there a need that I can fill? What does this world need in order to be made whole.” In pondering this Adam II set of questions one may stumble upon the need to do something they don’t necessarily want to do, but recognize they have the skills to do the work, or the self-efficacy to grow into the work.

They find a vocation or calling. They commit themselves to some long obedience and dedicate themselves to some desperate lark that gives life purpose.

Though a quick and easy read, The Road to Character was a challenging book because of the subject matter. It requires the reader to take stock in one’s choices and question motives behind one’s actions. While the polar ends of Adam I and Adam II are quite distinguishable, the nuances between the two as you draw closer to the center line can cause some inner perplexity. In a world that places a disproportionately weighted value on social recognition for works done, whether for monetary gain or artistic outlet, it can be difficult to remove oneself from any sense of pride or longing for approval. It is difficult to quiet the mind and allow a vocation to permeate through you, as opposed to continuing the ego driven quest of discovering one’s passion, that amounts to a series of tossings against the wall hoping something sticks.

The work of the Roman biographer Plutarch is based on the premise that the tales of the excellent can lift the ambitions of the living. Thomas Aquinas argued that in order to lead a good life, it is necessary to focus more on our exemplars than on ourselves, imitating their actions as much as possible. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead argued, “Moral education is impossible without the habitual vision of greatness.”

Brooks suggests quieting the mind, and self-transcendence, is exactly what we need to do, and attempts to show exemplars throughout history that have struggled with, but overcome, their character weaknesses and in doing so came into their vocation. He believes our relatively new sense of autonomy has removed us from the people, communities, institutions, churches, that had provided examples of good character and had established rules and guidelines for developing character. Brooks argues we aren’t born with a set of deeply rooted, unwavering, character qualities that guide our lives. Instead, we need to learn them, reinforce them, commit them to habit. We can’t do this by solely turning inward to listen for what comes out, but that we must engage outwardly to fuel that internal voice. We must seek the influences and influencers that build our character.

The pleasure in suffering is that you feel you are getting beneath the superficial and approaching the fundamental.

The book is divided into chapters of character traits along with lessons from individuals throughout history. Dorothy Day, Samuel Johnson, George Eliot, Dwight Eisenhower, and others provide examples of sacrifice and renouncing of self to discover meaning through vocation. Suffering creates the greatest opportunity for learning and growth. Most of David’s cited exemplars struggled finding their place in the world. They didn’t trade suffering for some profound joy, but rather submerged themselves in a purposeful struggle for a greater cause that became their vocation. The suffering illuminated their weakness, allowing them to more clearly see the needs of the world. In a sense, it was through the transcendence of self that they found themselves.

A vocation is a calling. People generally feel they have no choice in the matter.

Brooks doesn’t suggest we shouldn’t enjoy our vocation, but that the joy from it comes out of a higher purpose and service. Happiness, and avoidance of suffering, shouldn’t be a prerequisite for choosing a vocation. Rather, we should place our full efforts in performing a job that needs doing, and developing excellence in a craft that serves. We needn’t start charities or work at shelters, we can find this in baking bread, writing novels, or running a profitable business. If one has a deep commitment to a vocation they don’t seek recognition or positive reinforcement; their success isn’t measured by Adam I values. The work is measured by intrinsic values and the joy stems from staying true to those values.

There are long periods when you put more into your institutions than you get out of them, but service to the institution provides you with a series of fulfilling commitments and a secure place in the world. It provides you with a means to submerge your ego, to quiet it’s anxieties and its relentless demands.

Struggle, self-mastery, dignity, love, are some of the virtues discussed in depth and considered integral to the development of character and discovery of purpose. A common thread I found surfaced in the stories told is that of devotion. Dorothy Day was devoted to the church and the destitute, George Eliot to her lover, Samuel Johnson to his work, George Marshall to country and the military institution. They each sacrificed self for causes larger than themselves. In turn, that to which they were devoted held them up. The people and institutions became the foundation for which they could lean on to do the work that needed doing. The work was never glamorous and often went unrecognized, but it was work seen as necessary to make the world whole.

Suffering, like love, shatters the illusion of self-mastery.

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