Columnist David Brooks calls for needed changes

roadtocharacter_optA review by John D. Pierce

Many have detected a change in the writings of David Brooks, conservative columnist for The New York Times. His book, The Road to Character (2015, Random House), reveals his conversion.

Brooks offers to readers a way of focusing less on success and more on goodness. He provides philosophical depth and inspiring examples rather than some cheesy multi-step program.

He calls for greater attention to “eulogy virtues” (that are talked about at one’s funeral) than to “résumé virtues” that contribute to external success.

Brooks confesses: “Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.”

The book is written to a broader audience than those who subscribe to Brooks’ particular embrace of the Christian faith. And he draws from a wide range of resources — literature, history, religion and psychology — to build his case for a needed conversion of character.

But make no mistake: the biblical themes of goodness and grace permeate this important book.

Brooks turns to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchick, author of the 1965 book, Lonely Man of Faith, for some helpful distinctions. The rabbi, Brooks noted, used the two creation accounts in Genesis to name the opposing sides of human nature as “Adam I” and “Adam II.”

Brooks hangs onto those descriptive handles throughout the book. “While Adam I wants to conquer the world,” Brooks writes, “Adam II wants to obey a calling to serve the world.”

Adam I turns everything into a game and judges people by their abilities rather than their human worth, Brooks notes. Adam II calls for cultivating strong character.

Brooks said he is not writing in the abstract for those who might need his wisdom. Rather, he confesses, “I wrote it, to be honest, to save my own soul.” The book reveals that kind of personal struggle for meaning and purpose throughout its pages.

Most of the book involves story-telling about a wide variety of imperfect persons whose characters are reshaped by self-conquest, struggle, dignity, love and self-examination.
Brooks doesn’t just wax philosophically based on hunches. He looks at studies showing actual shifts that suggest the building of character is receiving less attention.

While noting no interest in returning to times of greater racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination, Brooks laments a clear shift away from honest skepticism of one’s own desires — before exclamation points, vanity license plates, and car stickers touting every personal success.

The data he collected “suggest that we have seen a broad shift from a culture of humility to a culture of what you might call the Big Me … that encouraged people to see themselves as the center of the universe.” For Brooks, a return to humility is the needed path.

“Humility is freedom from the need to prove you are superior all the time…” he writes. “Humility is the awareness that there’s a lot you don’t know and that a lot of what you think you know is distorted or wrong.”

Self-centeredness, on the other hand, “leads in several unfortunate directions” — including using others for one’s own benefit as well as pride that causes the rationalization of one’s own imperfections and the inflation of one’s virtues.

The shift from self-centeredness and pride to honest humility, according to Brooks, is not “a solitary struggle.” He commends “redemptive assistance from outside — from family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, exemplars, and, for believers, God.”

Pointedly, he adds: “We all need people to tell us when we are wrong, to advise us on how to do right, and to encourage, support, arouse, cooperate, and inspire us along the way.”

With equal insight he tackles self-respect, shame, vocation and sin — which he describes in terms of a “series of doors.” “Small moral compromises on Monday,” he notes, “make you more likely to commit other, bigger moral compromises on Tuesday.”

Sandwiched between the introductory chapters and the concluding chapter are stories that don’t emphasize typical heroics but reveal character in the ways Brooks has earlier described. As good as these stories are, the bread is even better. Here are a few favorite bites:

“If you think the world can fit neatly together, then you don’t need to be moderate… Moderation is based on the idea that things do not fit neatly together.”

“Suffering, like love, shatters the illusion of self-mastery.”

“The material world is beautiful and to be savored and enjoyed, but the pleasures of this world are most delicious when they are savored in the larger context of God’s transcendent love.” NFJ