New York Times columnist David Brooks has made his living observing and commenting on the political and cultural developments of the day. In The Road to Character, he turns his attention to the annuls of history to explore a moral ecology that stands in sharp relief to the prevailing focus on the self. He writes:
“My general belief is that we’ve accidentally left this moral tradition behind… We’re not more selfish or venal that people in other times, but we’ve lost the understanding of how character is built. The ‘crooked timber’ moral tradition – based on an awareness of sin and the confrontation of sin – was an inheritance passed down from generation to generation. It gave people a clearer sense of how to cultivate the eulogy virtues, how to develop the [better] side of their nature. Without it, there is a certain superficiality to modern culture, especially in the moral sphere.”
Brooks explores this terrain by providing real-life examples of how the shaping of a human soul worked. His intent was to allow his readers to glean important lessons and insights by bearing witness to these extraordinary lives. I found each of these biographies riveting – well worth the time it took to engage them.
While Brooks is loath to suggest that there is a twelve-step program to lead interested parties to a moral life, he identified a number of “threads” that seemed to run through the lives of the individuals that he highlighted in his book. The associated prescriptive for righteous living might read something like this:
- Lead a life of purpose, righteousness, and virtue, not just one of pleasure.
- Recognize our innate tendency toward selfishness and overconfidence as well as our propensity to see ourselves as the center of the universe; use this awareness as the starting point for moral and spiritual development.
- Engage earnestly in the struggle to overcome our baser instincts and grow in moral strength through a lifetime of effort. Sacrifice worldly success for the sake of inner excellence.
- Practice humility, recognizing that we are underdogs in the struggle against our weaknesses.
- Be vigilant over prideful tendencies that ignore our failings and deceive us into believing that we are better than others.
- Be more attuned to the internal struggle against our deficiencies than the external journey up the ladder of success.
- Become more disciplined, considerate, and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control, sharing, service, friendship, and refined enjoyment.
- Build enduring character traits – e.g., courage, honesty, humility – through sustained attachments to worthy people, causes, callings, and convictions. Be faithful through thick and thin.
- Leverage redemptive assistance from the outside – faith, family, friends, ancestors, exemplars, traditions, institutions – to achieve self-mastery.
- Recognize and surrender to the saving power of grace – from love of family and friends, from the assistance of a stranger, and from God.
- Be a grateful recipient of the endowment of practical wisdom, traditions, habits, manners, moral sentiments, and practices from our forbearers, recognizing that experience is a better teacher than abstract reason.
- Serve work that is intrinsically compelling and commit to its pursuit, ever mindful of what life is asking of us.
- Be good stewards of organizations over which we are called to be leaders, passing them along to others in better condition that when we found them.
- Attain maturity by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation, sure-footed in pursuit of noble purpose, and clear-headed amid reactions from admirers and detractors.
For those who might find the narrow path to righteousness stringent, Brooks provides a comforting and salutary observation:
“There is joy in a life filled with interdependence with others, in a life filled with gratitude, reverence, and admiration. There’s joy in freely chosen obedience to people, ideas, and commitments greater than oneself… There’s an aesthetic joy we feel in morally good action, which makes all other joys seem paltry and easy to forsake.”
Read the book and have a vibrant discussion with friends about it. It just may change your life.