I often like David Brooks’ work, but I absolutely adored his piece The Moral Bucket list from this weekend’s New York Times.
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?
Brooks goes on to talk about how our culture focuses on and applauds achievement and the building of “resume virtues” but provides very little guidance in the development of character and the “eulogy virtues.” I read his piece with tears in my eyes, nodding, a deep echo of a familiar gong sounding somewhere deep inside me. It strikes me that what Brooks is talking about is the primacy of interiority; about investing in and embracing who we are, not just what we do.
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.
This reminds me of something I’ve thought and talked and written about at great, often excruciatingly repetitive (I’m sorry!) length. Yes. For so many years I was so focused on external achievement, and I definitely felt the yawning open of the gap that Brooks describes. I’m not sure I experienced it as humiliating, but it definitely was something I could no longer ignore. It wasn’t a gap borne out of desiring some other self but rather an insistent awareness that I was missing my own life. My inner life wasn’t, as Brooks says, as rich as I wanted it to be.
And now, of course, it is the opposite for me. I’m dazzled by what I see behind my own eyelids, and my attachment to my home and my family and my quiet, ordinary life is so ferocious that I’m conscious of becoming alarmingly close to a shut-in.
It strikes me that the “eulogy virtues” are mostly about things that happen to us, whereas the “resume virtues” are about things that we do. Perhaps a shift towards embracing the “moral bucket list” of Brooks’ piece happens in tandem with acknowledgement that life is mostly about responding what happens to us. That our reaction and response and what we do with the raw material of our lives is what makes us who we are. At least for me, that awareness has come as the second half of my life has dawned. I don’t mean to downplay agency, which I do think we all have, but so much of life’s events are out of our control, and in my view we can tell a lot about who we are by our response to them.
I love that the New York Times published a piece that so strongly celebrates the power of a quiet, strong, honest, internal life, one built through setback and pain and loss and love. I’ve noted before that I’m most drawn to people who have experienced some difficulty or challenge. That vague pattern, which I’ve only become aware of recently, makes a lot of sense to me upon reading Brooks’ piece.
What I’m not sure of, though, is that these two things – a focus on the “resume virtues” and one on the “eulogy virtues” – are mutually exclusive. That seems to be to be unnecessarily draconian. I don’t think it’s as clear cut as walking away from a conventional life to live in isolation and focus exclusively on character development. I think we can live in the world and be focused on the experiences and perspective that result in the attributes that Brooks cites as belonging to “the people we want to be.”
I guess it’s just a question of our priorities and our values, of where we spend our only true zero-sum resource, our time. I am certainly grateful for my “resume virtues” and know that they help me in the world on a daily basis. To disavow them or to deny how much those achievements contribute to my life today is disingenuous at best and flat-out dishonest at worst. But my heart doesn’t live in those virtues, and I understand with a crystalline clarity that’s new in the last several years that the map of achievement doesn’t lead me to joy or contentment. Where my heart lives is in the effort to be kind, brave, honest, and faithful. it lives in deep love, the kind I feel for for Grace, Whit, Matt, and other dearly beloved family and those friends who are native speakers. That I know for sure.
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