Author urges cultivating eulogy virtues

by Don Brophy

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By David Brooks
Published by Random House, $28

David Brooks says he is often struck by the difference between résumé virtues and eulogy virtues -- the self-promoting things we say about ourselves, and the deeper, human qualities praised at the time of our passing.

Of the two, eulogy virtues are more valued, yet most people, he observes, give little mind to cultivating them. We spend endless hours preening our résumés but little or no time reflecting on how to become more compassionate, or humbler, or more generous.

"Many of us," says Brooks, "have no clear idea how to build character, no rigorous way to think about such things. We are clear about external, professional things but unclear about internal, moral ones."

To rectify that situation, Brooks, political columnist for The New York Times and a commentator for "PBS NewsHour," has written The Road to Character, which attempts to map the ways to salvation and guide us along the path to larger humanity.

It's an ambitious undertaking, and the reader's first reaction is to cringe. Do we really need another book on secular spirituality? Why must commentators reinvent a science that the world's great religions have spent millennia developing and honing?

Not to worry. Brooks is in touch with those traditions. He has read his Reinhold Niebuhr, C.S. Lewis and St. Augustine. He has participated in an ecumenical group of clergy and laity where many of these ideas were considered. He has lectured on them to undergraduates at Yale University. He has written a book that a person with a developed religious sense, or none at all, can reflect on with benefit and apply to his or her own life.

Indeed, Brooks does not pretend that he knows the single, golden path to a richer life. There are many roads, and in this volume he explores them in the lives of eight historical figures who, in varied ways, struggled against the superficialities of living and, by perseverance and discipline, enlarged and deepened themselves. Frances Perkins, Dwight Eisenhower, Dorothy Day, George Catlett Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, George Eliot, Augustine of Hippo and Samuel Johnson may or may not have been "saints" in a classic sense but they prove to be excellent models.

Brooks pinpoints a moment in each of their lives when they realized they couldn't continue on their present course. They needed to change.

For Perkins, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City summoned her to help poor working people. She threw herself into the struggle for the betterment of labor and became, in time, the first woman cabinet member, secretary of labor under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Eisenhower came to realize he would never be a leader until he curbed his temper. Marshall learned to subordinate his powerful intellect to the routine and discipline of the military. For Eliot, love encountered late in life empowered her to flee the conventions of Victorian society.

Brooks tells these stories well. But the text really comes alive when he reflects on them, borrowing insights from Jewish and Christian thinkers and from his own experience.

Regarding Eliot, he observes how human love can undermine the ego. "Love decenters the self," he says.

"The first thing it does is humble us. It reminds us that we are not even in control of ourselves. ... We don't build love, we fall in love, out of control. It is both primordial and also something distinctly our own, thrilling and terrifying, this galvanic force that we cannot plan, schedule, or determine."

Of Perkins' discovery of her vocation, Brooks remarks: "A person who embraces a calling ... is willing to surrender the things that are most dear, and by seeking to forget herself and submerge herself she finds a purpose that defines and fulfills herself. Such vocations almost always involve tasks that transcend a lifetime."

Brooks' treatment of human character is sometimes fuzzy. For one thing, the reader is not altogether clear what he means by the word. He cites one definition of character: "an ensemble of settled dispositions -- of habitual feelings and desires," which, while provocative, raises as many questions as it answers.

Also, Brooks tends to conflate character with personal morality (as in his text in the third paragraph of this review). One suspects that character is less about moral choices and more a quality of being. This is a book on asceticism.

Given the many personal stories that make up the volume, there is one story not represented here -- that of Brooks himself. He is obviously drawn to midlife conversion stories. He recently told an audience that he wrote this book "to save my own soul." One hopes he will share his own story in time. But that will be another book.

[Don Brophy is the author of One Hundred Great Catholic Books and Catherine of Siena: A Passionate Life.]

A version of this story appeared in the July 17-30, 2015 print issue under the headline: Author urges cultivating eulogy virtues.

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