The Dark Wood of David Brooks
David Brooks’s next book, The Road to Character, publishes tomorrow, the same days as my own How Dante Can Save Your Life. I’ve been reading David’s book (I received an advance copy) with amazement at how he and I have been walking parallel paths in life, and how that shows up in the books we have written — which have a stunning amount of overlap.
The Brooks book is really, really good. One rule I’ve observed in my house is that the better a book is, the more I find myself subjecting my poor wife to hearing me read passages aloud to her. “Listen to this,” is probably the most frightening three words she ever hears from me. Sadly for her, there are a lot of “listen to this” moments in The Road to Character, which is a practical, compulsively readable meditation on the virtues as embodied in the lives of real people. If it sounds Noble™, in an eat-your-broccoli sense, it’s not. I’m allergic to books like that, but this one is like having a long conversation with a friend as you sit by the fire in leather armchairs, and he tells you stories about people you wish you knew, and even that you wish you were.
[I]t’s a powerful, haunting book that works its way beneath your skin. And the motive for writing it, far from being a pompous desire to sermonise, was at least partly due to a personal crisis: Brooks’s realisation that his own life of well-paid worldly success, plus regular meetings with the president, was missing something essential inside.
“I started out as a writer, fresh out of college, thinking that if I could make my living at it – write for an airline magazine – I’d be happy,” says Brooks over coffee in downtown Washington, DC; at 53, he is ageing into the amiably fogeyish appearance he has cultivated since his youth. “I’ve far exceeded my expectations. But then you learn the elemental truth that every college student should know: career success doesn’t make you happy.” In midlife, it struck him that he’d spent too much time cultivating what he calls “the résumé virtues” – racking up impressive accomplishments – and too little on “the eulogy virtues”, the character strengths for which we’d like to be remembered. Brooks builds a convincing case that this isn’t just his personal problem but a societal one: that our market-driven meritocracy, even when functioning at its fairest, rewards outer success while discouraging the development of the soul. Though this is inevitably a conservative argument – we have lost a “moral vocabulary” we once possessed, he says – many of the exemplary figures around whom Brooks builds the book were leftists: labour activists, civil rights leaders, anti-poverty campaigners. (St Augustine and George Eliot feature prominently, too.) What unites them, in his telling, is the inner confrontation they had to endure, setting aside whatever plans they had for life when it became clear that life had other plans for them.
Yes, when midway through the journey of their lives, they found themselves in a dark wood, for they had lost the road to character. This is what happened to Dante Alighieri, who had spent the first half of his life building the resume virtues. He was a famous poet and leading politician in the most important European city of its day … until everything changed, and he found himself cast down, impoverished, and exiled. He had, in his own words, “lost the straight path.”
The Commedia is all about finding your way back. It sounds like David, who is five years older than I am, had a midlife crisis, as did I. We have both written books about that, though mine is plainly autobiographical, and tells the story of my midlife crisis through my journey through the Commedia. David’s is not nearly so confessional, but you can tell that something big happened in his life to put him on this new path.
David Brooks wrote a long piece in Sunday’s New York Times summarizing his new book. He titled it “The Moral Bucket List”. Excerpts:
About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.
When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character.
A few years ago I realized that I wanted to be a bit more like those people. I realized that if I wanted to do that I was going to have to work harder to save my own soul. I was going to have to have the sort of moral adventures that produce that kind of goodness. I was going to have to be better at balancing my life.
It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?
We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.
But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.
He says he set out to study the lives of people who had that kind of effect on others, to discern what was the secret of their moral success.
Brooks learned, in part, that Pride is the basis of all sin — a word he uses, despite its unfashionableness — and that Humility is the basis of all virtue:
We live in the culture of the Big Me. The meritocracy wants you to promote yourself. Social media wants you to broadcast a highlight reel of your life. Your parents and teachers were always telling you how wonderful you were.
But all the people I’ve ever deeply admired are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. They have identified their core sin, whether it is selfishness, the desperate need for approval, cowardice, hardheartedness or whatever. They have traced how that core sin leads to the behavior that makes them feel ashamed. They have achieved a profound humility, which has best been defined as an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.
This is exactly — exactly — what the pilgrim Dante discovers in his journey through Hell, up the holy mountain of Purgatory, and through the higher heavens. Reading David’s book is like reading a journal that someone kept of people they met along the road to character, like Dante’s adventures climbing the holy mountain. Everybody there confronted, at some point in their mortal life, their own destructive pride, and renounced it, even if only asking for God’s mercy in their dying breath. That’s all it took to save them: some recognition that they are not the center of the universe. But just as the ancient Israelites were delivered from Egypt when they crossed the Red Sea, it took them a generation of wandering in the Sinai to get Egypt out of their souls.
That’s what the Purgatorio is about — and it’s the kind of thing that Brooks discusses in telling the stories of his heroes of character, by showing that they were not perfect, yet struggled on through their brokenness and the difficulties life threw at them, doing what Marco the Lombard, in Purgatorio XVI, tells the pilgrim Dante when they meet on the Terrace of Wrath (where anger is purged). Here’s how I treat this in my book; the translation of the Commedia is Robert and Jean Hollanders’:
Suddenly a cloud of choking black smoke envelops Dante and the master. This is wrath, and it renders the pilgrim blind, unable to see a thing beyond anger. I stood there on the mountainside with Dante and felt the heat from the smoke. I felt it sting my eyes and burn my nostrils. I remembered working as a reporter down at Ground Zero days after the Twin Towers fell, and how something poisonous in the smoke rising from the pit made my head ache in the same place every time I went near the hole.
In the heart of that darkness, at the midpoint of the entire Commedia, Dante meets a man who gives him the secret of deliverance. He is Marco the Lombard, a nobleman who agrees with the pilgrim that the world is in a terrible state. Dante begs Marco to tell him why this is so, so that he can return to earth and tell all the others.
Here is Marco’s reply. For me, this discourse is the crown jewel in a poem heavy laden with treasure:
First he heaved a heavy sigh, which grief wrung
To a groan, and then began: “Brother,
The world is blind and indeed you come from it.
“You who are still alive assign each cause
only to the heavens, as though they drew
all things along upon their necessary paths.
“If that were so, free choice would be denied you,
and there would be no justice when one feels
joy for doing good or misery for evil.
“Yes, the heavens give motion to your inclinations.
I don’t say all of them, but, even if I did,
You still possess a light to winnow good from evil,
“and you have free will. Should it bear the strain
in its first struggles with the heavens,
then, rightly nurtured, it will conquer all.
“To a greater power and a better nature you, free,
are subject, and these create the mind in you
that the heavens have not in their charge.
“Therefore, if the world around you goes astray,
in you is the cause and in you let it be sought.”
Marco’s words hit me like a bolt of lightning. The Lombard whose wrath had blinded him in the mortal life delivered the same message that Mike Holmes [my therapist — RD]had on the first day of my therapy: You can’t change the world, but you can change the way you react to it.
I had understood Mike’s words, but their meaning had not sunk in. Now, standing within a black cloud of wrath, spite stinging my eyes, I heard the same message from the penitent Marco—and I got it.
Re-reading that this morning, I recall how the sense memory of the smoke from Ground Zero filled me with so much anger in the aftermath that it corrupted my judgment about the advisability of war. I didn’t see this until years later, but I was so angry that I wanted vengeance. It didn’t matter to me that Iraq almost certainly wasn’t guilty of 9/11. Some Arab had to pay for what was done to us, and it might as well be Saddam. Supporting this was the march of folly that my blind anger sent me on.
Anyway, the point Marco makes is that we have the power to deny ourselves our selfish impulses for the sake of something higher. (The language Marco uses here re: “the heavens” refers not to Paradise, but to the medieval belief that the motions of the planets affected human behavior.) The men and women in The Road to Character lived out this wisdom. They knew that nobody is born virtuous, but rather virtue must be cultivated through inner struggle. For Christians, that inner struggle begins with the humble realization that one’s own broken nature means that one is powerless over one’s own sinfulness without divine grace. All we can do is refuse ourselves so that grace will have room to work in our souls. We have to cooperate with the work of grace. Only God can make us good, but he’s not going to do it unless we really want it. And we show that we really want it by tearing down the walls of ego that keep us from unity with Him.
I finished The Road to Character yesterday, and was stunned and delighted to read this passage at the end, in his powerful final chapter on “The Humility Code.” The first of the code is this (the emphasis of the first line is my own):
We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness. Day to day we seek our pleasure, but deep down, human beings are endowed with moral imagination. All human beings seek to lead lives not just of pleasure, but of purpose, righteousness, and virtue. As John Stuart Mill put it, people have a responsibility to become more moral over time. The best life is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul and tranquillity that comes as a byproduct of a successful moral struggle. The meaningful life is the same eternal thing, the combination of some set of ideals and some man or woman’s struggle for those ideals. Life is essentially a moral drama, not a hedonistic one.
Later, in that same chapter, talking about how the great struggle of life is with oneself, and with one’s own deficiencies:
Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation. Character is a set of dispositions, desires, and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness. You become more disciplined, considerate, and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control, sharing, service, friendship, and refined enjoyment. If you make disciplined, caring choices, you are slowly engraving certain tendencies into your mind.
This is the same thing revealed to me over the weekend, as we Orthodox Christians
observed the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. I discovered that my family and I had become happy because without really knowing what we were doing, we sought holiness. And we sought holiness as our adopted Christian tradition, Eastern Orthodoxy, teaches us to do it, even though it’s a hard road.
It occurs to me that as I write about the Benedict Option, what I am pushing for at the core is for the creation of small communities that walk the road to character — which is to say, the road to holiness — together, in the face of the overwhelming power of a hedonistic, individualistic popular culture that deifies what Brooks calls “The Big Me.” It’s a culture that has gutted Christianity over the past decades, and in which far too many of us Christians have been willing to embrace uncritically, to our own destruction. But that’s a subject for another post.
The Road to Character is published on Tuesday, the same day as How Dante Can Save Your Life. It may not be such a great idea for a writer to recommend a similarly-themed book that is to be published on the same day as his own, but in the case of David’s book, I do so without reservation. If you go to the bookstore on Tuesday, I encourage you to buy both these books. The Brooks book is worth its price for Chapter Ten alone.