In a recent column for The New York Times, drawn from his new book On the Road to Character, David Brooks formulated a wonderful distinction between "resume virtues" and "eulogy virtues." The first measure whether you will get what you want from life. The second measures who you are. I loved his emphasis on moral character rather than the character strengths normally associated with success. Traditionally, America is a church-going, God-fearing country where we pray on Sunday and then go out during the week and think mostly about ourselves and our families. Brooks wants us to look inward, all week long, instead of simply looking out for our own interests. He wants us to carry that Sunday reverence for goodness into the rest of our calendar.
Well and good, but something about his column bothered me, and I couldn't pin it down, at first. I went back and reread some of his passages: "Our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success . . . on how to build an external career (rather) than on how to build inner character." I completely agreed with this, but still the notion of consciously building character seemed off, to me. I read on. "But character is built during the confrontation with your own weakness. Individual will, reason and compassion are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride and self-deception. We all need redemptive assistance from outside."
Again, I couldn't disagree, but I began to see how he was insistent on a couple things that struck me as byproducts of genuine goodness: humility and an awareness of one's weaknesses. Asking someone to focus on his or her own sins and failures isn't exactly wrong, and it may be a brief prelude to the humility Brooks wants to inspire, but it seems also like a path toward a pious self-absorption. What builds character are actions on behalf of other people, a loss of self through a forgetfulness of self.
If you want to know how ineffective you really are, how little you matter in the world, you don't need to Google your own name. Just try to make another person's life better. It's hard, and it's slow. It's tough enough just resolving to do it, but then when your good intentions bump up against the resistance of another human being's life and situation, a real humility sets in. The caring it evokes isn't about you and your moral status; it's about the other person's welfare. Helping others is a great lesson in what you can and can't achieve. Meanwhile, the deeper you get into it, the more your own failures and weaknesses fade into the background.
In all fairness, Brooks allows for this and celebrates it. He talks of how Dorothy Day's life was radically transformed by the birth of her child and the selfless love she felt for her new baby. That involuntary love showed her what selflessness and self-forgetting actually meant. She becomes what Brooks calls "the stumbler," someone who, in trying to do good for others, becomes a better person by trying and failing and trying and failing to do something good. Not a better person than other people, but better than the woman she used to be. And yet, here's the key: she isn't thinking about her own self-improvement, but about improving the lives of people who need her help.
She's becomes a new person by becoming nobody at all, in a way: by forgetting herself altogether. The I Ching, an ancient Chinese book of wisdom, has a marvelous sentence about all this under the heading of "Breakthrough": "The best way to fight evil is to make energetic progress in the good." Brooks would read that line and think, "Exactly! Work to be a better person!" But, for me, the book is saying that the best way to overcome our own weaknesses and failures is to look past them. Quit pushing back against them, and simply do what's good for others. In the process, you forget your strengths, weaknesses, and everything else. You become no one, in your own mind, because you aren't thinking of yourself at all, and yet you're on the way to becoming everything a person was meant to be.