I’ve been delighted to discover David Brooks’ book The Road to Character. It will be a great resource in many ways, including for my upcoming course on ‘Lives of Faith’. Brooks has written a very personal book about a number of lives, ranging from St Augustine to Dwight Eisenhower—noting that all the people he studies were pretty messed up when they were 20 or so years old, but became truly great people. What changed? What things mark ‘the road to character’?
One of the most helpful things Brooks has to say is that we are confronted constantly with a choice of values or priorities. The choice is very succinctly expressed in the opening paragraph of the book. (I have heard him expand on this, on a wonderful podcast available from the ABC radio show, Big Ideas.)
Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.
There are just a few things I want to say about this paragraph and the thesis of the book. Brooks goes on to say that he confesses he has spent much of his life and energies on the resume values (and I think that is both reasonable, and normal)—and that our education system, our society and our public conversation are all focussed on these things: being productive, achieving, succeeding, etc. But his study goes on to show that it is not these things that lead to ‘character’ or what he calls deepening.
His study of life stories, and my studies support this, see the critical role of such things as honest self-assessment (facing our failures and limitations—such as Eisenhower’s awful temper); suffering, which becomes an opportunity to grow, and then self-sacrifice, towards the long haul, hard work for specific goals. Some of these things clearly overlap with resume values, but the focus is very different. And underlying all of these values is something about learning to love.
Amidst what I called the long littleness of life, there is also the need to work out our priorities. It is sometimes noted that nobody on their ‘deathbed’ wishes that they had spent more time at the office.
So the challenge of this reflection is really just a question or two.
What are our ‘eulogy’ values, the things we hope that others might say characterized our life and relationships?
It is an important thing to recognize that this is not just a matter of trying to make sure that people say nice things about us. It’s not about people-pleasing. It might even be the opposite.
Furthermore, I think most of these ‘higher’ values are by-products of other things. We can try to do things like being loyal and kind, but other things are by-products. We don’t set out to be wise: anyone who tries to be ‘wise’ is probably deluded. We can study wise people or teachings, but I think wisdom is something that just might be in some people, in spite of themselves. It’s a by-product of love, respect, humility. Those are things we can hope for—though they also arise from experiences. Brooks shows how suffering can enable love and empathy, which in turn may produce wisdom. But there’s no formula for any of this.
In the end, that’s the great challenge here: to be prepared to live with an openness to whatever it is they might say at our funeral, but with a deep desire to love and care for each other, the earth, and ourselves: and all the rest will look after itself.