Who will preach your funeral? If you were to die today, is there someone on the planet who actually knows you well enough to describe not only the biographical you, but the real you – or more so, the best you? In his masterful book, The Road to Character, David Brooks describes these as eulogy virtues. We all want to be better people, but what does that mean?
According to Brooks, our understanding is skewed by perspective. Go to a graduation ceremony today and the commencement speaker will challenge the class to “dig deep and find your inner passion and then follow your heart with everything you are.” The flaw here is that the road to fulfillment is laid out as both self-serving and ultimately impossible because our awareness is ever changing and our hopes are on tomorrow. Past generations were more focused on being the best person possible each day. The life of integrity was informed by yesterday and tomorrow but its focus was now, and always outward. Who you were was defined by the life you lived as it related to God and others, not your own inner child.
My parents and grandparents had a certain depth of character that doesn’t exist anymore. They had a profound appreciation for material things and took care of what they had, but they also knew those things were only things and valued people more. They knew that people were precious but imperfect and turned their hearts to God in obedient reverence. They were never ambivalent about morals or confused about ethics. Right was right, wrong was wrong. My grandmother often said, “We might have been poor, but we were clean”. She meant so much more than soap.
There was a pride that came with living correctly, without whining or excuse that set the tone and cadence of their lives. They worked hard and no matter how little they had, they gave thanks and shared it with others who had less. My grandmother was known for providing supper to a stranger and doing without herself.
Montaigne once wrote, “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.”
As Brooks writes “That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.
And so it goes. Many people today have deep moral and altruistic yearnings, but, lacking a moral vocabulary, they tend to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions. How can I serve the greatest number? How can I have impact? Or, worst of all: How can I use my beautiful self to help out those less fortunate than I?”
We best learn these lessons by example, and borrowing from the Roman biographer Plutarch, The Road to Character highlights the lives of exemplary people, for as Thomas Aquinas argued, in order to lead a good life, it is necessary to focus more on our exemplars than on ourselves, imitating their actions as much as possible.
This is a book to be read and reread. The more I mature, the more I expect to learn from its pages.