The primacy of interiority

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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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12 Comments

  1. Posted April 13, 2015 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    Lovely post, Lindsey. Thank you. As I read Brooks’ piece I thought of my husband who I think is one of these radiating people and has gone through adversity as Brooks describes. I thought it was interesting that my husband also posted about the essay but had this to say: “Just as any rock can have beauty carved out of it, so too can ANY person move towards the kind of goodness Brooks describes. But the reliance on stories of exemplars obscures the fundamental nature of such movement. It takes consistent, persistent effort over time. But the good news is that this effort is by no means Herculean. It can be small — but it must be persistent. I know people who do one small thing for others (in secret) every day. These people carry the kinds of qualities to which I aspire. And they come about not by magic and not by remarkable events, but by consistent small moves. Being a good person is thus a practice, not a process and not an event.” I think A Design So Vast highlight such practice and persistence.

    admin Reply:

    I so appreciate this comment, Andrea. And I agree with your husband that it’s the aggregate effort of small things every day … a practice, more than anything else. I can’t tell you what it means to me to hear you say that about this blog. xox

  2. Posted April 13, 2015 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    I just clicked over and read Brooks’ whole essay. Thank you so much for sharing it and your take on it. Both will sit with me today.

    admin Reply:

    Isn’t it wonderful? xoxo

  3. Posted April 13, 2015 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    I’ve read your words here twice already. You and Brooks describe some things I have thought about often. I am so much in love with the notion of “eulogy virtues” because somewhere in the past few years that’s where I’ve un/subconsciously focused more efforts (though effort isn’t quite right because in many ways it feels effortless). I’m fascinated by the shift and its source; is it becoming a parent? aging? greater awareness of the wider world? I’m sure it’s some combination of many things, though not a change in values per se, at least for me anyway. Maybe more of a disregard of society’s expectations. Hard to say. But I really love thinking about this–thank you for pulling your thoughts and his words together in one place. It’ll be on my mind for a while.

    admin Reply:

    Thank you so much. Can’t wait to discuss this and so many more things soon. I’m aware of a shift like the one you refer to, too (perhaps not a coincidence, given that we are the same age). xox

  4. Posted April 13, 2015 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes:

    “Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself.”

    http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/16094.Lois_McMaster_Bujold

    It’s actually much easier to change your reputation than to recover your honor.

    admin Reply:

    Oh, yes. xoxo

  5. Posted April 13, 2015 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    Oh my, yes. I know exactly what Brooks describes – whenever I meet these kind of people (who tend to be contemplative, peaceful souls as I think about it) it’s as if my soul is jealous in the best kind of way, yearning to rest in that kind of joy, too. I find myself making choices as I begin middle adulthood that I’m sure would surprise my younger self, but it is precisely because I care less about my resume and more about the settling of my spirit into my corner of the world and those I’ve been given to love. Thank you for such important thoughts to start the week.

    admin Reply:

    Thank you so much for this comment. I love the image of resting in that kind of joy. And yes there’s something about contemplation and peace … it’s not showy, but it is so powerful. xox

  6. Posted April 13, 2015 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    I love his piece, too. But I love what you’ve done with it even more, taking it into your heart and then offering it to us, your readers. Beautiful writing my friend!

    admin Reply:

    Thank you so much, dear one. So happy about your announcement this week and I can’t wait to get my hands on a book of your posts, each one of which has landed somewhere deep and important inside of me. xoxoxox

  7. Posted April 13, 2015 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Lovely post. Beautiful sentiments. Thank you for sharing.

    admin Reply:

    Thank you so much. xo

  8. Posted April 14, 2015 at 4:23 am | Permalink

    Yes! Resume virtues ring hollow if you have underdeveloped eulogy virtues. I felt like someone was reading my mind as I read your post, though you say it so much more beautifully. Thank you.

    admin Reply:

    Thank you so much. What a nice thing to say! xoxox

  9. Nadine
    Posted April 14, 2015 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Just as I read your words yesterday, I then heard him talk on NPR later in the day. Maybe something I should listen to…

    admin Reply:

    Love when the universe talks to me like that, too … xoxo

  10. Posted April 14, 2015 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Loved it too and your response. You make a profound point about what happens to us vs what we do and how the way we respond says so much.

    Beautiful analysis!

    admin Reply:

    Thank you, dear friend. xoxox

  11. Posted April 14, 2015 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    I just read this again and appreciate even more what you say about resume virtues and eulogy virtues not being mutually exclusive. I totally agree – I don’t think the world is black and white.

    This reading of D. Brooks’ work has been so helpful for me. So often, his columns infuriate me, and lately, I have noticed a change in him, which has infuriated and confused me even more (honestly, I don’t usually have such a reaction to columnists except for him and Daniel Jones). Anyway, this helps me understand him more.

    Oh, I really just love this because of your words and because of your “ferocious” attachment to being present for your own life. I still hover around resume virtues and this piece you have written will be a touchstone for me. Thank you. xoxo

    admin Reply:

    I so appreciate your comment here. I don’t think of you as hovering around resume virtues at all. In fact you are one of those lambent souls, at least to me, that Brooks refers to. xox

  12. Posted April 18, 2015 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    Beautiful post, Lindsey. I especially love your assertion that much of life is based on our responses to what we are handed. More and more in my life, I realize that so much of my day is built out of the building blocks of my thoughts and emotions — how I am responding to my eight-year refusing to do her math, or the cats climbing on the counter (again), or the roadblock in whatever path I’ve chosen. Sometimes I think the bulk of my agency is actually choosing what I will do next in the face of what life has handed me today. If that makes sense? And I agree wholeheartedly that the “resume” and ” eulogy” aspects of our lives are intertwined. What I have accomplished influences who I am at the core — and the reverse is true, for me, as well. As always, you’ve given me much to ponder!