Wisdom for the journey

In The Road to Character, New York Times columnist David Brooks studied eight historical persons who built good character. He found they all followed an inward journey. He asks his readers: what must we look for? Do we look inside to follow our bliss, to discover our true self, or is character formed through struggle, resisting dark desires, taming, controlling the evil within? “Be true to yourself!” is a constant refrain, today. The focus on the self is now so pervasive that Brooks refers to our day as the time of “the Big Me.” Humans are uniquely gifted, but also deeply flawed. Within there is love, kindness, honesty, bravery, faithfulness but also pride, self-centeredness, insecurities, jealousies, addictions, over-spending, over-eating. The turmoil within needs mastery! Character formation is against ourselves, suppressing the bad, practising the good. It is a moral battle.

A moral battle requires a moral compass. Recent decades have seen a shift in how people acquire their moral bearings. At one time there was a greater acceptance that humans are flawed, in need of repair, and that the purpose of life is to overcome moral weakness, sin and depravity. Humility discouraged boasting. In contrast, the age of Big Me looks for a moral compass within the human soul. Is there a better guide than your own conscience?

Be true to yourself! Follow the promptings of your heart! Chart your own course!

Formerly, the moral compass came from without: God, parents, teachers, friends and neighbours. The institutions of society, family, marriage, school and church, aimed to shape behaviour, morality, character. People were bad, institutions were good! We have reversed that. Spirituality is bliss but churches stink. People are honest but politicians lie. At one time, humility and self-denial were desirable traits, now children deserve heaps of praise, their achievements trumpeted. And struggles against the inner self seem quaint.

The book ends with a helpful summary of the chief ingredients for character building, culled from Brooks’ historical examples. Brooks goes on to write:

          Don’t live for happiness, live for holiness. Life is a moral drama, not a hedonistic one.
          Shun selfishness, for you are not the centre of the universe.
          We are both flawed and splendidly endowed.
          Humility is a virtue, pride is a vice.
          “. . . the struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life”.
          “You become more disciplined, considerate, and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control, sharing, service and refined enjoyment.”
          “No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside – God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, exemplars.”
          Ultimately we are saved by grace. We find acceptance. It is a gift. Then gratitude fills the soul and with it the desire to serve.
          Habits of self-effacement, modesty, obedience to a larger cause are important, as is a capacity for reverence and admiration.
          Be modest about your own understanding. The world is complex beyond human comprehension.

What should Christians think of Brooks’ findings? Self-denial is central to Christianity. Jesus could not have been clearer that to get beyond the self the self must be surrendered, emptied in service to others. C.S. Lewis writes about heaven, “Each soul will be eternally engaged in giving away to all the rest that which it receives. We need not suppose that the necessity for something analogous to self-conquest will ever be ended, or that eternal life will not also be eternal dying.” Discipleship is a struggle.

Brooks’ observation that Big Me has leached self-examination from Christian practise rings true. My parents talked about their character flaws and habitual sins. We place less emphasis on depravity and struggle, and more on celebration. It is equally true that as institutions have lost their lustre, we are more individualistic and less connected. As Brooks readily acknowledges, some of this is good. Institutions can and have been misused. Similarly, the focus on total depravity was excessive. Today, children are more joyful in church and that is wonderful! But, while God is less threatening he is also taken more lightly. And severing people from institutions has left them atomized, disconnected. The Big Me generation hardly knows inner struggle. That is a loss. If the contest between good and evil does not involve me, what is there to live for? Without a cosmic contest boredom sets in. Boredom is a modern ill.

Selecting a moral compass depends on where we place our trust. Is our surrender to self, or to Jesus? Character-building is spiritual. The road to character is an inward struggle, each day again for a lifetime, shaping the soul for time and eternity. Brooks’ book is a timely and helpful guide.

Author

  • Nick is an occasional contributor, a former Member of the Legislative Assembly and long-time CC supporter. He lives in Richmond, B.C.

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