Thursday, February 9, 2017

Building character

Building character, like life itself, is a journey, and we get that point with the title of the David Brooks book The Road to Character. We may be born with a certain personality, but not with character. That's something that takes a lifetime to develop, assuming we even bother to try.

Brooks studies character building by studying the lives of a variety of men and women who made more effort to develop character than most of us do. They never became perfect people, but all were better later in their lives than earlier. Dorothy Day and Augustine were sexual libertines in their youth. Both later became devoted to Christian service. Dwight Eisenhower struggled with a terrible temper. Thanks to the influence of his mother and his military training, he learned to control it to become both the supreme Allied commander in World War II and the president of the United States. Frances Perkins fought to subdue her own wants and needs to better serve others.

Character building has become an old-fashioned concept, which is why younger readers may not be drawn to this book. With all the emphasis on self-esteem today, children are inclined to believe they already have it made. Why work to improve when you are already perfect? Brooks says that 53 percent of all students now get A's. Some graduating classes have a half dozen valedictorians or more. If high school is easy, why not the rest of life? And if virtue is relative and what's right for you is not necessarily right for me, then why work to become more virtuous?

Brooks contrasts Johnny Unitas with Joe Namath. Both were great NFL quarterbacks from the same region of Pennsylvania, yet their concepts of character were radically different. Unitas believed in working hard and keeping a low profile. Namath believed in having fun and showing off. Brooks sees them as symbols of their respective generations, Even though both men played in Super Bowl III, we tend to associate Unitas with the 1950s and Namath with the 1960s, when because of Vietnam and a lot of other factors, social change was rampant. Yet Brooks suggests it was actually the postwar Unitas generation, sometimes called the Greatest Generation, that actually brought about the change in how people view character. After years of Depression and war, this generation focused on material success, building big homes in the suburbs and acquiring nice things. Developing character became a minor issue, then no issue at all in many homes and schools.

Brooks says there are "resume virtues" and "eulogy virtues." The first includes the kinds of things we brag about and use to get jobs and impress others. The second kind of virtue includes what might be said about us at our funerals, at the end of our life journeys. And this second kind of virtue is what makes character.

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