Rarely does a book change my perception of human nature like David Brooks’ The Road to Character. As a member of the Baby Boomer generation, I have long known that my age cohorts differ markedly from my parents’ generation, but could not put the shift into historical context.
Now I see. It is reflected in how we define character values.
David Brooks begins with a comparison between “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” Resume virtues include qualities that determine one’s value to a company in terms of output and profit, such as drive, education, training, and pliability; eulogy virtues are those qualities that define you as a human being – are you a faithful friend? Are you honest? Have you been kind to others?
David Brooks profiles several individuals, from antiquity to present day, to illuminate particular values, such as dignity, love and self-conquest. Taking his lead, I found a few examples of my own. Ben Franklin defined Self-Mastery: as a young man, he recognized the virtues that would enable him to fulfill his desire to succeed. Franklin’s writing talent and business acumen aside, it was self-discipline and developing community service networks that contributed to his success – public libraries, public education, volunteer fire departments were Franklin projects. Following the American Revolution and a long public service career, Franklin devoted the end of his life to ending the moral problem of slavery.
Another example of the values of self-examination and struggle is seen in the work of Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black. She endured a 10-year legal struggle as a result of youthful indiscretion, followed by a year in the Danbury Federal Women’s Prison. The woman who entered that prison was a pillar of Yankee “I got myself into this mess and I’ll get myself out” stoicism. She left as a woman feeling gratitude for small kindnesses, understanding how we need one another to find true joy. This book is a revelation of becoming empathetically human. Piper Kerman now helps other women transition from prison to the outside.
Authentic character is marked by understanding that human beings are all interconnected, and that one life is as valuable as the other. It is marked by gratitude and humbleness. Human nature includes both good and evil. “Good” is a reflection of how kindly we treat each other. “Evil” reflects a lack of empathy. The struggles we experience are all moral struggles between these two natures. It is choosing to give rather than to receive, it is choosing to love and forgive rather than to hate, it is recognizing that our choices make us complicit in other people’s suffering. It is knowing when to embrace a situation and make the best of it rather than fighting it. It is recognizing that the well-planned life doesn’t feed the soul. Resume values do not define character. Eulogy values do.
The generational shift from WWII to Baby Boomers finally makes sense. We turned our parents’ values on their head. We moved from “it’s all about us” to “it’s all about me.”
David Brooks said that he wrote The Road to Character to save his life; I read it and am writing about it to understand and save mine.