Yearning to Be a Better Person

David Brooks said that he wrote The Road to Character to save his own soul. In looking at his own life, he realized he was too concerned with “resume virtues” and not enough with “eulogy virtues.” In telling the stories of people like Dwight D. Eisenhower and Frances Perkins, he hoped to learn how they developed character after descending into “the valley of humility.” The people he chose to write about were interesting, but they didn’t inspire me that much, perhaps because we each have our own passions and our own heroes. I found myself more interested in the idea presented at the beginning of the book – that human beings have two selves – one motivated by ambition and one motivated to seek a higher, moral purpose.
The Two Selves

In the introduction, Brooks explained an idea that he read about in The Lonely Man of Faith – that we each have two conflicting selves. The author of that book, Rabbi Joseph Soloveithchik, described two sides to our natures, which he named Adam I and Adam II. Adam I is the ambitious, achievement-oriented self. He seeks status and wants to be victorious. He follows a utilitarian logic, pursuing self-interest and the rewards we expect to get from our efforts. This self keeps busy building, creating, and producing. This self asks “what’s in it for me?” Adam I nurtures himself my cultivating his strengths and fiercely guarding his self-interests.

In contrast, Adam II, is the moral-seeking self. This side of us is motivated by a desire to love others just as we love ourselves, to do good and to be good. He wants to honor creation and his own potential, which means yielding to a “transcendent truth” and sacrificing the desires of the self to a greater good. Adam II lives by a moral logic that is completely contrary to the Adam I way of thinking. He wants to produce good fruits like kindness, love, and mercy. To nurture himself, he must confront his weaknesses. To fulfill this self, he must forget his own wants and think about himself less. For Adam II, achieving humility is the greatest success; pride is his greatest failure. This self asks “what’s the right thing to do?”

I see these two selves at work in me. I want to achieve my goals and have the things that make me happy. I pursue my own wants and interests. I see the world from my point of view. I think my own thoughts. I make my own choices about right and wrong because I have the will and the freedom to do so. But the other side of me recognizes that I don’t live in isolation. I am not the center of the universe; there are other people on my planet. Other individuals have their own wants and interests, their own ways of thinking and seeing and their own free will to make choices.

It is in my best interest to live in harmony with other people even though their interests compete with my self interests and even when it is not easy for me to yield to the wants of others. So I find a calling in me to look to a higher moral code that is above my self-centered ways. It may be in my selfish interest to lie or cheat to achieve the desires of the Adam I in me. But the Adam II in me sees that these behaviors are not good. Adam II sees that the best moral choices are honesty, fairness, respect for others and what rightfully belongs to them, kindness, patience and self-control.

When we truly desire for Adam II to be the victor in the battle within the self, it is hard to understand why Adam I continues to exert so much power over him. The apostle Paul attempted to explain the struggle for power over the self (from Romans 7). I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. Paul recognized the warring sides of his nature – the inner being that delights in God’s law and the sinful nature that is always right there with him.

The Road to Character

I always liked the quote, life is a journey not a destination. It encourages me to savor my everyday experiences instead of worrying too much about where I’m going. It reminds me of the Harry Chapin song, Cat’s in the Cradle. The father was so busy pursuing the goals of Adam I that he missed out on the important things until it was too late. But when it comes to character, it is worth stopping to think about where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.

A road to character is a great metaphor for the process of developing character. It makes me think about bumps and potholes. Life can throw a lot of those your way and if you’re not careful, they can do some damage – damage that points out the need for repairs. On mountain roads, you have to drive slowly because of sharp turns, steep grades, and blinds spots. Other times life goes so smoothly, you can drive on autopilot or maybe take the slower, scenic route. But on the road, you must be prepared for unexpected detours and changes in weather. Nothing focuses you like driving in a blizzard.

Then there’s the issue of getting lost if you don’t know where you’re going. My pastor asked us the other day if we have ever gotten lost while driving and if we had, if we knew why we had gotten lost. He showed us the results of a survey that showed that 45% or so of people said they got lost because of bad directions. Almost the same percentage got lost because they missed a road sign. I’ve gotten lost for both reasons and I’ve gotten lost because I thought I didn’t need directions! I foolishly thought I could figure it once I got there. I found that I had to stop and get my bearings and get the directions I needed to continue on my way.

On the website for The Road to Character, Brooks wrote that he wants to have the “moral adventures” that lead to being a better person. Now, I wouldn’t call the situations that lead to character “adventures.” An adventure sounds like something fun and exciting. I would call the situations that develop character a refining fire that takes rough, impure material and turns it into something precious and beautiful.

Sometimes character develops from adversity, suffering or struggling through something difficult. In retrospect, you can see the benefits of the struggle, just as I learned to be a better driver by driving in less than ideal conditions. Romans 5:3-4 says “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

Growing up poor made me a stronger person. My ambitious Adam I self became determined to overcome and succeed. I learned the value of self-sacrifice and self-discipline. The Adam II side of me learned to not think too highly of myself and to have empathy for others. Most importantly, adversity taught me that I am not defined by external signs of success – what I have or what I accomplish – but by who I am on the inside.

Adversity may lead to character but how we respond to challenges reveal our true character at that point in time. For example, I sometimes respond to frustrations at work with a lack of patience and a desire to vent my anger. But acknowledging and confronting this weakness in me leads me to think about how I might practice better self-control the next time the network crashes on me or someone derails my work plans.

Shifting the Conversation

Besides hoping to become a deeper better person himself, Brooks said that he wrote The Road to Character because he wants to shift our conversation away from the cultural focus on external success. The hope is that we will relearn the vocabulary that past generations used to describe virtues and that we would focus more on “the internal confrontation with weakness that produces good character.” I agree. Many people don’t spend much time nurturing their moral side, confronting the weaknesses of their characters. But facing up to our weaknesses, though painful, produces moral growth – just as pruning a branch produces healthy new growth.

Indirectly at least, we are starting to have this conversation whether we want to or not. We’re talking about the dishonesty of political candidates. We’re using words that were not part of our vernacular before – xenophobia, narcissism, misogyny. We’re seeing an example of Adam I at his worst – pursuing selfish ambition, bragging about wealth and achievements while ignoring or denying weaknesses of character. Today, we’re facing cultural struggles that reveal the moral weaknesses of that culture.

Let’s talk about the kind of people we should yearn to be. Let’s talk about the seven virtues or the nine spiritual fruits – love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, patience, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Let’s talk about our weaknesses and how we can learn to be better people.

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