In this reflection, Susan speaks about power with heart in describing the conscious development of radiant and energizing love.
This week I reflect on aspects of moral character.
On my way to Meeker Park last weekend to hike in the national forest I passed a Canada goose on the side of the road, standing and staring at the passing cars. Instinctively I slowed down, and then realized the goose wasn’t preparing to cross—he or she was keeping a mourning watch over the body of his or her fallen mate: I caught a glimpse of tangled wings and feathers in a heap in the tall grass. The pair must have taken off from the river and flown low across Highway 7. The first goose made it across. The second must have been hit by a car and fell dead and crumpled in the ditch. This image deeply troubled and stayed with me, and it keeps revisiting me, and so I take it as a prompt to write about the virtues of devotion and steadfastness.
I’d been thinking about those virtues anyway, having just buried two exemplars of them the weekend prior to my hike. Two people who died much too soon, one suddenly and tragically, the other protractedly and tragically; both of them like geese leaving behind mates who now stand by the side of the road, staring numbly at passing cars. That’s what grief does to you.
If you don’t already know the person at whose funeral you are to preside, you get to know them quickly through the conversations you have with their families. You get to know them through the eulogies presented at their funerals. You get to know them in the depth of grief that attends their dying. Eulogies often list the accomplishments a person tallied up during his or her lifetime, but they also usually touch as well upon the virtues a person embodied.
David Brooks, a New York Times columnist and author, published an essay in the NYT exactly one year ago that I liked so much I downloaded and saved it . It’s drawn from his book, “The Road to Character.” Brooks noted that occasionally he ran across someone whose inner goodness radiated outward so much so that it struck him as unusual. After a time he decided he too wanted to radiate inner goodness and so he set out to research what exactly these folks possessed that he didn’t.
He writes, “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 observes that secular culture teaches people how to build resume virtues but not eulogy virtues. I would observe that teaching the latter is the job of parents, friends, and faith communities working together.
Brooks writes that if one lives “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.”
Through Brook’s research he concluded that inner virtue in a person is built up over time. Christians might borrow St Paul’s language (Ephesians 4:15) to describe that phenomenon as a person growing into the heart and mind of Christ. Brooks writes that in a culture of me-focused social media and rampant selfies, humility is a much-needed virtue that helps someone radiate inner goodness. Again, I think of Paul, this time writing to the Christians at Philippi (2:3-8): “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
Brooks observes that “external success is achieved through competition with others. But character is built during the confrontation with [one’s] own weakness.” Here I find yet another parallel to Paul, who said in 2 Corinthians (12: 8-10): [The Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, [continued Paul] I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
The recognition that achieving success (external or internal) is only possible through the support and assistance of others is another virtue that Brooks identifies as key to radiating inner goodness. His assertion echoes Paul’s writings when Paul describes Christian community as the body of Christ. Each person is differently and uniquely gifted, all persons in the community are mutually accountable, and all are pulling toward a common and altruistic goal. No one achieves success without the support of the other members of the body.
Brooks identifies what he calls “energizing love” as a virtue that helps radiant people de-center the self. Christians might describe this as the love of Christ and what it leads us to do in his name. For Brooks this leads to a sense of call to do or contribute something to the world beyond one’s own self. He talks about something he calls “the conscience leap”: “In most lives there’s a moment when people strip away all the branding and status symbols [and t] hey leap out beyond the utilitarian logic and crash through the barriers of their fears.” Scripture refers to this as having faith.
Brooks concludes by naming “a feeling of limitless gratitude” for life as a final contributor to the goal of radiating inner goodness. Curious about what I saw as clear religious themes in his writing, I Googled Mr. Brooks  and found he was raised in a Jewish home (and is still somewhat observant), educated at a young age in an independent Episcopal school, and worked at his first job out of college at a Catholic magazine. His book “The Road to Character” is a best-seller that seems to draw teachings from both Hebrew and Christian scriptures and present them in contemporary language to people beset by the self-focus of contemporary culture. In that, Mr. Brooks has done holy work. I’ll bet his soul is becoming incandescent.