Vices and virtues on the road to characters

Reflecting again on David Brooks’ work, The Road to Character, (the beginning of the chain begins HERE), the greatest virtue is HUMILITY. It is vital we have an accurate assessment of our own nature and our place in the cosmos. We have weaknesses, and we are the underdog in that struggle. Individual talent alone will not overcome those weaknesses. Humility is the reminder that we are not the center of the universe. There is a larger order to serve.

Pride is the central vice. It blinds us to our weaknesses. It misleads us into thinking we are better than we really are. Pride tricks us into more self-certainty and closed-mindedness.

We need hard assessments of our own lives… and understand there is a way forward.

The long road to character: Admit the flaw

David Brooks’ “Humility Code” from his book The Road to Character has a summary of what he has been talking about all through his book. START HERE to begin my review.

The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of ourselves. This one will hurt: we are flawed. It gets worse: we tend toward selfishness and seeing ourselves as the center of the universe. (Obviously, this drew a lot of nasty comments in the comments section of Brooks’ column in the NY Times.) We hate to admit where we are starting. We think so much better of ourselves, but in doing so lose out on an honest evaluation of what is ahead.

Admit we’re flawed… but also understand we have tremendous gifts and opportunities. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. Brooks actually uses the word sin (another huge comment section followed on THIS big social no-no): “We do sin, but we also have the capacity to recognize sin, to feel ashamed of sin, and to overcome sin.”

We have to see the struggle and the road to character begins when we engage the struggle. The powerful examples he gave all through his book were stories of overcoming. He would tell stories of people who knew their fundamental flaws and overcame them to contribute something significant to their world.

The biggest victory is NOT “changing the world.” The biggest victory is overcoming the flaws and see character form within. 

Road to Character: Quit living for happiness

Some thoughts along the way from David Brooks’ book, The Road to Character, and especially his wrap thoughts he calls “The Humility Code.”

Thought One: We don’t live for happiness. We live for holiness. We are endowed with moral imagination and we settle too easily with surface pleasures.

The life well lived is one that orients around “increasing excellence of soul” (p. 262).

Let us be nourished by moral joy, the quiet sense of gratitude and tranquility that comes as a byproduct of successful moral struggle.

The crooked-timber school of character

The Road to Character is a book that needs to be nearby in the coming months. It should be an ongoing conversation. Brooks has a website where the conversation can hopefully keep going on this subject.

What I am impressed about with Brooks is that over the past few months I have noticed a decided change in his columns at The New York Times. He has decided to engage in a moral conversation again. I admire it because I love reading his columns, then reading the visceral responses in the comments section. People really hate his ideas. It must be striking a nerve. And its shows when we’ve painted someone with broad-brushed strokes already (Brooks is typically labeled the “Republican” voice at the Times), then we automatically make a judgment as to their thoughts before even reading or hearing them.

But The Road to Character is bold. Brooks is bold enough to state that where we are currently is… not good. We need a better road. We have drifted too far into narcissism and he would love a conversation to try and bring back moral goodness as a societal value. Something we can talk about in the public square.

We must work to build up the soul again. The forces that have built up what he calls the “Big Me” (and you have to read the book on this because I won’t take enough time to explain it here) have gone too far. We are out of balance.

Instead of worship the golden idol of our own lives we’ve built up inside ourselves (the “Big Me”), we need to realize a different conversation is useful. We need our inner natures developed better. We need Adam II back in the conversation.

This is the school of “crooked timber” for Brooks. It is learning to grow with adversity. We grow strong through adversity, not worshiping some false image of ourselves. We should pay more attention to outside influences in this process.

The book is about those outside forces. He then wraps up the book by reiterating some of those principles.

He calls it “The Humility Code.” It is worth pondering.

We need higher ideals in our lives. There should be nothing wrong with that. But to get on that road, we need to get around the golden idol of self that is standing right in the way.

The moral conversation

David Brooks hits the moral conversation issue hard again. 

Where do we find the answers to the great questions we have, such as, “What is the purpose of my life?” We still ask those kinds of things, but where are the voices that can help guide the answers? Public conversation doesn’t want a moral voice any long. We want political voices. It’s so odd that as much as we say we hate politics and political voices, that’s really all that’s left.

For instance, we don’t really want someone helping us form a more full-voiced opinion on immigration. We only want to find the voices that fit our narrow bandwidth of opinion and camp on that. All other voices that may help nuance our position, or help us modulate our position, are simply “too left” or “too right.”

Public debate is now undermoralized and overpoliticized. We have many shows where people argue about fiscal policy but not so many on how to find a vocation or how to measure the worth of your life. In fact, we now hash out our moral disagreement indirectly, under the pretense that we’re talking about politics, which is why arguments about things like tax policy come to resemble holy wars.

We’re good at offering knowledge, or at least our slim view of it, but not much on wisdom. And we certainly don’t want a moral discussion in the public square any more. It’s about our political agendas, but not about what is wisdom in a situation, or how to attain an overarching wisdom that can help inform particular situations.

Baltimore. Ferguson. The shooting in Garland, Texas. All politicized powder kegs.

The Connecticut school shooting? The Aurora shooting? All politicized powder kegs. Have we had the needed conversation on mental health in this country? Nope.

Hopefully the conversation is shifting, and David Brooks is offering to help find a way to facilitate it. Read his column and join in on the conversation.

Where do you find your source of wisdom? Where have your found your purpose? Who has helped you on that journey? How does that inform your life?

Those are the big block questions we really need to put on the table and let people wade through in this volatile time.