Review: The Road To Character

Review: The Road To Character July 7, 2015

My general belief is that we’ve accidentally left this moral tradition behind. Over the last several decades, we’ve lost this language, this way of organizing life. We’re not bad. But we are morally inarticulate. We’re not more selfish or venal than people in other times, but we’ve lost the understanding of how character is built. – David Brooks

road to characterIf I could shove one book into the hands of most everyone I know and demand they read it, it would be NY Times columnist and pundit David Brooks’ The Road To Character (Random House, 2015). Of course, Brooks would say that forcing books on people would demonstrate a stunning lack of character on my part. He’d be right. So instead I’m going to tell you why I admired this book, and ask you politely (please and thank you) to buy or borrow it for yourself. The book has provoked self-reflection even among those who were chafed a bit by Brooks’ analysis. Others have been challenged by his thoughtful insights about the way in which character is developed and exercised.

He references the categories in Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s 1965 book Lonely Man Of Faith in order to give his readers a sense of the way in which he understands moral development:

…Adam I is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature. Adam I is the external, résumé Adam. Adam I wants to build, create, produce, and discover things. He wants to have high status and win victories. Adam II is the internal Adam. Adam II wants to embody certain moral qualities. Adam II wants to have a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong— not only to do good, but to be good. Adam II wants to love intimately, to sacrifice self in the service of others, to live in obedience to some transcendent truth, to have a cohesive inner soul that honors creation and one’s own possibilities. While Adam I wants to conquer the world, Adam II wants to obey a calling to serve the world. 

These categories hearkened to the spiritual development Father Richard Rohr described in Falling Upward and the journey toward spiritual maturity Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich detailed in their book The Critical Journey: Stages In The Life Of Faith. I keep circling back to the work of these authors because we as human beings need this framework to understand how spiritual maturity happens. We in the church need it because the way we “do” church often suffocates this growth instead of nurturing it. (Dones, anyone?) I would add Brooks’ book to this group because it serves to illustrate the way in which character expresses Adam II-type maturing spiritual and moral development. We aren’t really sure in our culture or in our churches what it means to be a grown-up. One thing is certain: there’s a whole lot of us who don’t really want to be one.

With chapters covering topics like self-conquest, dignity, and ordered love, this book is not a manifesto for doing what makes you feel good. Adam II character is formed in our lives through sacrifice. Selfishness keeps us stuck in perpetual moral childhood. This should not be a news flash for followers of Jesus. Frankly, it wasn’t a news flash for people who lived a few generations ago, no matter what their creed.

Brooks is not advocating a return to Ye Good Olde Days, however. He is encouraging his readers to reconsider how and for whom they’re living their lives. The Road To Character offers illustrative snapshots of individuals providing both positive and negative examples including church father Augustine, organizer Bayard Rustin, General George Marshall, novelist George Eliot, and quarterback Johnny Unitas. He teases out formative details from their lives in order to help us understand how our choices form and transform us. We can not see in the moment of any given day the impact of a single moral decision we may be asked to make. Each time we make one of those little or big decisions because we’re choosing love – the 1 Corinthians 13 kind – we move toward maturity.  It is not easy, Brooks notes. But there is no other road to Adam II character:

Once the necessities for survival are satisfied, the struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life. No external conflict is as consequential or as dramatic as the inner campaign against our own deficiencies. This struggle against, say, selfishness or prejudice or insecurity gives meaning and shape to life. It is more important than the external journey up the ladder of success. This struggle against sin is the great challenge, so that life is not futile or absurd. It is possible to fight this battle well or badly, humorlessly or with cheerful spirit. Contending with weakness often means choosing what parts of yourself to develop and what parts not to develop. The purpose of the struggle against sin and weakness is not to “win,” because that is not possible; it is to get better at waging it. It doesn’t matter if you work at a hedge fund or a charity serving the poor. There are heroes and schmucks in both worlds. The most important thing is whether you are willing to engage in this struggle.

Brooks writes as a seeker, in the best possible iteration of that word. He’s a keen observer, and pushes readers without bullying them to consider who they are going to be, and how they’re going to get there. It’s often a lonely journey toward moral maturity. It takes the kind of character Brooks describes to stay the course.

Have you read this book yet? If so, what did you think?     


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