New York Times columnist, David Brooks, was in town this week speaking to the Economic Club of Indiana. I knew he was coming months ago and as soon as I heard, I made sure I had a seat. That might be the most uncool thing I have ever written. And I don’t care. There, not caring makes me cool again.
I started reading his column regularly last year. He writes important things and he writes it well. I enjoy his column even when I disagree, although I agree more often than not. He is known for being a conservative commentator in his column and in his radio and television appearances. But Brooks appears to be going through some personal changes in perspective, and with the “conservative” political movement at such an obvious fork in the road, it makes his personal growth appear drastic.
“The Road To Character” is his latest book and he was on the book tour circuit promoting it for much of the Spring and Summer of 2015. This is what led to his appearance in Indianapolis this week. And his appearance led me to read the book. I am glad I did.
The book has a list of lessons contained in it, but broadly, it discusses the difference between two clear sets of virtues and how our commitments to each set shapes and defines our lives. “Resume” virtues are those things that create the appearance of professional or materialistic success: good schooling, financial rewards, “likes” on Facebook, etc. Brooks provides plenty of insight and data to show how our culture has become obsessed with this definition of the American Dream. Throughout the book, he details reasons why excellence in this arena is not the key to a life of fulfillment and meaning.
“Eulogy” virtues are the second set. The term itself is fantastic. These are the traits and events that people speak of at funerals. Things like our love of family, our contribution to community, and our commitment to faith are generally the highlights. And while we define our lives by our excellence within this set of standards at the end of our lives, too often we are not living our lives with that being the goal of our life’s time.
The discussion of the concepts of sin and humility at the front end of the book puts the reader in the necessary mindset to fully appreciate the range of real life examples of famous lives well lived. From Frances Perkins, FDR’s full term labor secretary, to General George Marshall, the architect of post World War II Europe reconstruction (among other things), Brooks converts what would appear to be resume accomplishments to those coming from a life’s “vocation.” This concept flips the mindset from one of what we can get out of life to one of what life needs from us and calls out for us to fulfill. “Callings” are very different than careers.
And this concept flies in the face of the current political climate, most vividly the GOP Presidential nomination battle, and the recent election of the new Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. During the Q&A session at his Indianapolis appearance, Brooks was generically asked about Donald Trump. He responded by saying: “so, I wrote a book on humility…” Big applause there.
Last month, he wrote in his column that House Republicans had become “ungovernable.” I don’t think the installment of Speaker Ryan changes his view. How could it? One of Ryan’s first public stances in his new job was his commitment not to work with President Obama on immigration reform. Now that’s leadership. Modern leadership.
I was lucky enough to briefly chat with Brooks before his talk. I told him I write this column and he asked me what it was about. When I mentioned the political slant, he said with a laugh that it must be tough to write since “there’s not much going on here.”
Oddly, Indiana is headed into its most predictably high profile legislative session in my twenty years of involvement due to the unfinished high profile business from the last one. I am truly amazed that in the time that has passed since last Spring and the nationally chronicled debacle we experienced, that a clear political path to a reasonable solution on civil rights has not been established.
Brooks wrote last month that “politics is the process of making decisions amid diverse opinions.” I would add that in the American experience, it also requires those in power to call on their own character to do the right thing, especially when the right thing is the hardest thing for them to do.
“The Road To Character” is a book filled with valuable lessons that translate into our daily lives and our current political realities. The discussion and decision on civil rights this winter is one that will entirely reflect our character as a state. It is time for our elected officials to follow Brooks’ advice by abandoning the political mindset of obstruction, to one of resolution.
In the book, he quotes poet Marguerite Wilkinson and the idea of our sins of omission as examples of “unattempted loveliness.” History rarely looks back on the politics of obstruction endearingly, especially when that obstruction is temporary.
“The Road To Character” is less difficult to find than many think, even for David Brooks. The biggest challenge is the simple decision to drive it.