Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Road To Character by David Brooks

In this book David Brooks gives what might be considered the longest, and best, commencement speech ever. He speaks personally, yet universally also. He is not just talking to college-leavers, but to any of us ready to embark on a new quest in our lives. He takes the reading, experience, and thought of a lifetime and presents us with what he considers to be more important than the pursuit of happiness: the pursuit of goodness, character, morality. Happiness comes as the byproduct of a moral life, of a life of striving to be good. We don’t have to actually become good, and free from error or ‘sin’. We have to strive to be good. As we strive, so we become. The process is as important as the goal.

It occurs to me that the framers of the U.S. Constitution, most of whom might be supposed to exhibit character, might have known that the Pursuit of Happiness was chimerical. That is, they may have believed that we citizens should be free make mistakes and to fail in our pursuit of happiness until we realized it comes from some inner depths more related to character than to immediate gratification. That, it strikes me, makes the men and our Constitution all the greater, and also makes it a laudable goal for a nation.

Brooks suggests that spending one’s life pursuing the “resume virtues” of wealth and fame may, sooner or later, leave us questioning ourselves and our lives unless we attempt to see and focus on something(s) outside of ourselves that needs doing that we are uniquely equipped to do. He suggests that finding and beginning and pursuing this outside goal may lead to satisfaction and happiness when focus on oneself cannot. Pursuit of this outside goal will lead to “eulogy virtues.”

What struck me about the examples that Brooks provides of people who have exhibited the eulogy virtues is that they were of either sex, and came from every century, every background (wealthy, middle class, or poor), every race, every political stripe. These people achieved eulogy virtues by different methods. The diversity of examples provided by Brooks distracted at times from his central point, but perhaps with more study this richness of exemplars would become reassuring rather than overwhelming.

We do not find what we were put here to do by looking within. We do not have the material with which to work at a young age. We find what we were meant to do by looking outside ourselves and using our natural inclinations and talents to pursue a larger goal than that of personal aggrandizement. In this way we can remain pointed in the right direction as the winds of change swirl around us, refashioning popular sentiment. Money, fame, and stature in society are insufficient to achieving lasting happiness and the virtue worth eulogizing, character.
"What the Victorians were to sex, [our generation] is to morality. Everything is covered in euphemism."
I am reminded of a book written by a young woman just out of school. Kathryn Schultz’s book called Being Wrong talks also of how embarrassed and agonized we are over errors we commit that come with being human. We can’t avoid errors, but we can improve our error rate by being humble, and by listening more than speaking.

Brooks encourages us to aim higher than self. Best of all, we can begin at any stage in our lives, rich or poor, experienced or not. We do not have to be college graduates or paid employees of a large firm. We can simply begin. It strikes me as the most insightful and useful graduation speech I’ve never heard.

For those of you who prefer to listen to the book read aloud, this nonfiction is very ably read by Arthur Morey with an Introduction by the author. Although what Brooks is saying often requires deeper thought, you can always rewind when one finds one's thoughts shooting off in another direction as a result of what he's written. Better yet, listen again.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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