TJP Reads: The Road to Character

Road in the Woods

If you follow Jesuits on social media, you may know that this is “anniversary season.” Jesuits in the US have typically entered and taken vows in the Society of Jesus during the month of August, so my Facebook and Twitter feeds have been filled with pictures of vow celebrations and messages marking the dates of guys’ entrance and vows.

I also just read The Road to Character by New York Times columnist David Brooks and found interesting connections for any of us marking anniversaries of a significant commitment.

Brooks states that he wrote this book “to save my soul.” This is not the language I typically expect to find from a Times columnist.

He distinguishes the “résumé virtues” from the “eulogy virtues.” While the former can land one in the college or job of her dreams, the latter, such as kindness, integrity, and faithfulness, are what we deeply admire in people and remember when they die. Each chapter of his book focuses on a different1 model of such “eulogy virtues,” from Dwight Eisenhower to Dorothy Day.

Throughout The Road to Character and a column that largely summarizes his recent work, Brooks takes a chainsaw to many of the popular commencement speech bromides, such as “be true to yourself” or “follow your passions.” The people of character he identifies do not so much ask, “What do I want from life?” but ask, “What is life asking of me?”

Brooks praises the “stumbler” — the one who doesn’t have seven habits for highly effective people, the one who fails but keeps going. The stumbler has the humility to know she will never have it all figured out; she’s more concerned with being better than she used to be, rather than being better than her neighbor. She suffers but does not run away; she is transformed by her embrace of messy reality.

For Brooks, people of character are often those who stay committed to a calling, a cause, or a person for the long haul — even when they smack up against frustration or sin, particularly their own.

After growing up constantly hearing the message “keep your options open,” commitment scares me. Because of striving after the résumé virtues from an early age, my inclination is to run from personal and collective imperfection. I wish commitment weren’t so crucial to character, but I think Brooks is on to something.

This week, I remember in a special way the commitment I made to be a Jesuit. I don’t always like where I am sent. The formation experiences that push me to face my own muck are deeply uncomfortable.

But in this Society of Jesus, a mix of holiness and oh-so-humanness, I have encountered countless people — Jesuits, students, colleagues, and Jesus himself — who make me want to be better, who make me want to be a man of character. And I am grateful.

 

Cover image by Alex, Flickr Creative Commons

  1. Granted, I wish there was even greater diversity in the people Brooks describes. Focusing on a few contemporary people would be particularly helpful.

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