‘Road to Character’ is thought provoking book

Gratitude is rightly the virtue we think of during Thanksgiving week, and of course there is much for which to be grateful. I want to write about two people for whom I am grateful: Augustine, the fourth century Bishop, and David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and author. In his book published earlier this year, “The Road to Character,” Brooks offers a look into the lives of nine historical figures, including Augustine.

By looking at the character of these people, Brooks helps today’s reader take a look at their own character — a somewhat frightening proposition but certainly worthwhile. The Road to Character is the most impactful book I have read in a long time.

The subjects of the profiles are people like Francis Perkins, who was the Secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt, President Dwight Eisenhower, and George Marshall, the general. There are others, including Augustine, which he writes about in a chapter he names “Ordered Love.”

Brooks writes on page 206 in my hardback edition: “In Augustine’s view, people do not get what they deserve; life would be hellish if they did. Instead people get much more than they deserve.” This little reflection captures so much of Christian belief and the universal moral ethic. We can choose to believe that we have earned everything we have, which would be a very limited view of our blessings, or we can attempt to see all our blessings, which will quickly outnumber any list of personal achievements, accomplishments or accumulation.

One of the main ideas behind the book is that culture has become one of self-promotion, based on the notion that we can find fulfillment by looking within and working individually to make our own happiness. The examples of character which Brooks presents make the argument that we would be much more likely to find fulfillment by making one’s self small, by connecting with others, and by looking outward to find ways to make others happy.

The Road to Character is not about religion but the book’s universal themes are inescapable. Let me share these paragraphs from Brook’s section on
Augustine (page 192):

Augustine’s feelings of fragmentation have its modern corollary in the way many contemporary young people are plagued by a frantic fear of missing out. The world has provided them with a super-abundance of neat things to do. Naturally, they hunger to seize every opportunity and taste every experience. They want to grab all the goodies in front of them. They want to say yes to every product in the grocery store. They are terrified of missing out on anything that looks exciting. But by not renouncing any of them they spread themselves thin. What’s worse, they turn themselves into goodie seekers, greedy for every experience and exclusively focused on self. If you live in this way, you turn into a shrewd tactician, making a series of cautious semi-commitments without really surrendering to some larger purpose. You lose the ability to say a hundred noes for the sake of one overwhelming and fulfilling yes.

Augustine found himself feeling increasingly isolated. If you organize your life around your own wants, other people become objects for the satisfaction of your own desires. Everything is coldly instrumental. Just as a prostitute is rendered into an object for the satisfaction of orgasm, so a professional colleague is rendered into an object for the purpose of career networking, a stranger is rendered into an object for the sake of making a sale, a spouse is turned into an object for the purpose of providing you with love.

I remember John Paul II telling us that the opposite of loving someone is not to hate them but to use them. I guess he got the idea from Augustine. David Brooks does a masterful job of explaining the concept in 21st century language.

In the last chapter of the book, Brooks recalls life’s big questions: “Toward what should I orient my life? Who am I and what is my nature? How do I mold my nature to make it gradually better day by day?” He offers 15 propositions for consideration to the person attempting to answer these questions. There is much good material in these propositions, but here let me offer for your consideration a sentence out of No. 13:

A vocation is not found by looking within and finding your passion. It is found by looking without and asking what life is asking of us.

My business experience gives me knowledge of numerous people who have found professional fulfillment by surveying the landscape, identifying needs and then committing themselves to responding to those needs in a meaningful way. I call these people entrepreneurs, which I have no doubt is a vocation.

Let me close by going back to the chapter on Augustine. Brooks describes what he calls the “Augustine process” (page 208):

It starts with the dive inside to see the vastness of the inner cosmos. The inward dive leads outward, toward an awareness of external truth and God. That leads to humility as one feels small in contrast to the almighty. That leads to a posture of surrender, of self-emptying, as one makes space for God. That opens the way for you to receive God’s grace. That gift arouses an immense feeling of gratitude, a desire to love back, to give back and to delight. That in turn wakens vast energies. Over the centuries many people have been powerfully motivated to delight God. This motivation has been as powerful as the other great motivations, the desire for money, fame, and power.

The genius of this concept is that as people become more dependent on God, their capacity for ambition and action increases. Dependency doesn’t breed passivity; it breeds energy and accomplishment.

If you know an adult who is trying to figure out life, who is open to serious ideas about life’s meaning, you might consider “The Road to Character” as a Christmas gift.

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