Seventh in a series
I am so enthusiastic about David Brooks’ “The Road to Character” (New York: Random House, 2015, pp. 300, $28) that I want to encourage others to read it too.
Occasionally, when I read a book for a second time, it does not seem as good as it did on my first reading. Perhaps I am more critical in the second reading. Whatever the reason, my original enthusiasm usually wanes. The opposite has happened with this book. As I re-read it, Brooks’ insights seem to leap off the page at me.
When I started this series of columns, I did not intend to write seven using Brooks’ insights as a springboard. Each time I finished a column, however, I discovered more insights of his that I wanted to share. This was partly due to the experience of finding insights in Brooks’ book that spoke directly to me about something that I was experiencing in my own life. For example, I have become aware of how difficult it is to erase self-interest even in the performance of apparently unselfish acts. The self keeps intruding. He writes the following:
“No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason, compassion, and character are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride, greed, and self-deception. Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside – from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars. If you are to prosper in the confrontation with yourself, you have to put yourself in a state of affection. You have to draw on something outside yourself to cope with the forces inside yourself. You have to draw from a cultural tradition that educates the heart, that encourages certain values, that teaches us what to feel in certain circumstances. We wage our struggles in conjunction with others waging theirs, and the boundaries between us are indistinct.” (pp. 264-265)
There are many ways of trying to overcome selfishness and self-centeredness. When I was in high school, the Jesuit priests who taught us wore hairshirts on certain days, and I have heard that at times, they engaged in flagellation, though I am not sure how often. There was a time in my life when both practices would have appealed to me. I don’t know if Jesuits still practice those acts of penance and mortification. They not only don’t appeal to me anymore, but also I think they would not be good for me. Of course, my judgment about what to do to overcome selfishness and self-centeredness may itself be influenced by my selfishness. That we deceive ourselves, even when we think we are being honest and sincere in our efforts at personal growth, is one reason why it is wise to have a spiritual advisor.
A friend and I have an ongoing discussion about whether all acts of love are in some way selfish. He maintains that every apparently virtuous act that might seem to be unselfish is done because the person doing it knows that he or she will benefit from the act. For example, my friend suggests that if I engage in prayer and try to live a moral life, I am doing so to be rewarded with entrance into heaven. This goal, he suggests, is what motivates me. I see his point and I suspect that many actions may have selfish motives behind them. However, I want to believe that, at least occasionally, we act unselfishly with no concern about whether or not we will benefit from our actions. I suspect that the saints love God unselfishly.
I agree completely with Brooks’ insight that redemption comes from outside. We do not save ourselves. We are needy on every level of our being, probably most needy in relation to growth in holiness. The self-made person is a fiction, and recognizing our need for help is a huge step toward maturity and self-awareness. In God’s plan of redemption, I think family and friends play important roles. As I age, I become more aware of the blessings that family and friends have been in my life. I hope I never stop being grateful. I am also grateful to David Brooks for his book and his columns in The New York Times. In our secular society, his prophetic voice is a blessing.
Father Robert Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).