BIG ME : little me

Little me

About a week ago, I came across the book, The Road to Character by David Brooks.  After reading the introduction, I wanted to drop kick the book and scream, "THIS IS MY STRUGGLE - THESE ARE MY THOUGHTS!!!" But I couldn't really because they aren't, they're better.  Much better. And more eloquent.  

So instead of my thoughts, I'd rather just share his.

Below is the the introduction.  It's brilliant, and poignant, and just down right spot on.

I pray, I hope, that we may be men and women who live such lives and overcome the struggle.


Introduction : Adam II

"Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues.  The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success.  The eulogy virtues are deeper.  They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being – whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.

Most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the resume virtues, but I confess that for long stretches of my life I’ve spent more time thinking about the latter than the former.  Our education system is certainly oriented around the resume virtues more than the eulogy ones.  Public conversation is, too- the self-help tips in magazines, the nonfiction bestsellers.  Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.

One book that has helped me think about these two sets of virtues is Lonely Man of Faith, which was written by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in 1965.  Soloveitchik noted that there are two accounts of creation in Genesis and argued that these represent the two opposing sides of our nature, which he called Adam I and Adam II.

Modernizing Soloveitchik’s categories a bit, we could say that Adam I is the career oriented, ambitious side of our nature.  Adam I is the external, resume Adam.  Adam Ii 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.  While Adam I is creative and savors his own accomplishments, Adam II sometimes renounces worldly success and status for the sake of some sacred purpose.  While Adam I asks how things work, Adam II asks why things exist, and what ultimately we are here for.  While Adam I wants to venture forth, Adam II wants to return to his roots and savor the warmth of a family meal.  While Adam I’s motto is “Success,” Adam II experiences life as a moral drama.  His motto is “charity, love, and redemption.”

Soloveitchik argued that we live in the contradiction between these two Adams.  The outer, majestic Adam and the inner, humble Adam are not fully reconcilable.  We are forever caught in the self-confrontation.  We are called to fulfill both personae, an must master the art of living forever within the tension between these two natures.

The hard part of this confrontation, I’d add, is that Adam I and II live by different logics.  Adam I – the creating, building, and discovering Adam – lives by a straightforward utilitarian logic.  It’s the logic of economics.  Input leads to output.  Effort leads to reward.  Practice makes perfect.  Pursue self-interest.  Maximize your utility.  Impress the world. 

Adam II lives by an inverse logic.  It’s a moral logic, not an economic one.  You have to give to receive.  You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself.  You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave.  Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride.  Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning.  In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself.  In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.

TO nurture your Adam I career, it makes sense to cultivate your strengths.  To nurture your Adam II moral core, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses.

We live in a culture that nurtures Adam I, the external Adam, and neglects Adam II.  We live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to cultivate the inner life.  The competition to succeed and win admiration is so fierce that it becomes all-consuming.  The consumer marketplace encourages us to live by a utilitarian calculus, to satisfy our desire and lose sight of the moral stakes involved in everyday decisions.  The noise of fast and shallow communications makes it harder to hear the quieter sounds that emanate from the depths.  We live in a culture that teachers us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character.

If you are only Adam I {emphasis added}, you turn into a shrewd animal, a crafty, self-preserving creature who is adept at playing the game and who turns everything into a game.  If that’s all you have, you spend a lot of time cultivating professional skills, but you don’t have a clear idea of the sources of meaning in life, so you don’t know where you should devote your skills, which career path will be highest and best.  Years pass and the deepest parts of yourself go unexplored and unstructured.  You are busy, but you have a vague anxiety that your life has not achieved its ultimate meaning and significance {underline added}.  You live with an unconscious boredom, not really loving, not really attached to the moral purposes that give life its worth.  You lack the internal criteria to make unshakable commitments.  You never develop inner constancy, the integrity that can withstand popular disapproval or a serious blow.  You find yourself doing things that other people approve of, whether these things are right for you or not.  You foolishly judge other people by their abilities, not by their worth.  You do not have a strategy to build character, and without that, not only your inner life but also your external life will eventually fall to pieces . . .

. . . You can’t build rich Adam II lives by reading sermons or following abstract rules.  Example is the best teacher.  Moral improvement occurs most reliably when the heart is warmed, when we come into contact with people we admire and love and we consciously and unconsciously bend our lives to mimic theirs.

The truth was hammered home to me after I wrote a column expressing frustration with how hard it is to use the classroom experience to learn how to be good.  A veterinarian named Dave Jolly send me an email that cut to the chase:

The heart cannot be taught in a classroom intellectually, to students mechanically taking notes . . . Good, wise hearts are obtained through lifetimes of diligent efforts to dig deeply within and heal lifetimes of scars . . . You can’t teach it or email it or tweet it.  It has to be discovered within the depths of one’s own heart when a person is finally ready to go looking for it, and not before.

The job of the wise person is to swallow the frustration and just go on setting an example of caring and digging and diligence in their own lives.  What a wise person teaches is the smallest part of what they give.  The totality of their life, of the way they go about it in the smallest of details, is what gets transmitted. 

Never forget that.  The message is the person, perfected over lifetimes of effort tht was set in motion by yet another wise person now hidden from the recipient by the dim ists of time.  Life is much bigger than we think, cause and effect intertwined in a vast moral structure that keeps pushing us to do better, become better, even when we dwell in the most painful confused darkness. 

Those words explain the methodology of this book.  The subjects of the portraits that follow are a diverse set, white and black, male and female, religious and secular, literary and nonliterary.  None of them is even close to perfect.  But they practiced a model of living that is less common now.  They were acutely aware of their own weaknesses.  They waged an internal struggle against their sins and emerged with some measure of self-respect.  And when we think of them, it is not primarily what they accomplished that we remember – great though that may have been – it is who they were . . .

. . . Occasionally, even today, you come across certain people who seem to possess an impressive inner cohesion.  They are not leading fragmented, scattershot lives.  They have achieved inner integration.  They are calm, settled, and rooted.  They are not blown off course by storms.  They don’t crumble in adversity.  Their minds are consistent and their hearts are dependable.  Their virtues are not the blooming virtues you see in smart college students; they are the ripening virtues you see in people who have lived a little ad have learned from joy and pain.

Sometimes you don’t even notice these people, because while they seem kind and cheerful, they are also reserved.  They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restrain, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline.

They radiate a sort of moral joy.  They answer softly when challenged harshly.  They are silent when unfairly abused.  They are dignified when others try to humiliate them, restrained when others try to provoke them.  But they get things done.  They perform acts of sacrificial service with the same modesty everyday spirit they would display if they were just getting the groceries.  They are not thinking about what impressive work they are doing.  They are not thinking about themselves at all.  They just seem delighted by the flawed people around them. They just recognize what needs doing and they do it.

The make you feel funnier and smarter when you speak with them.  They move through different social classes not even aware, it seems, that they are doing so.  After you’ve known them for a while it occurs to you that you’ve never heard them boast, you’ve never seen them self-righteous or doggedly certain.  They aren’t dropping little hints of their own distinctiveness and accomplishments.

They have not led lives of conflict-free tranquility, but have struggled toward maturity . . . These are people who have built a strong inner character, who have achieved a certain depth.  In these people, at the end of this struggle, the climb to success has surrendered to the struggle to deepen the soul.  After a life of seeking balance, Adam I bows down before Adam II.  These are the people we are looking for."

You can buy the book here.