David Brooks Speaks on “The Role of Character in Creating an Excellent Life”

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church
David Brooks @ Westminster
David Brooks @ Westminster

This was the title of David Brooks’ May 14th presentation at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Town Hall Forum. An appreciative audience of over 3,000 filled the Sanctuary and other rooms at the church to hear the talk and demonstrated why he called Westminster his “favorite venue.”[1]

Both the talk and his recent book, “The Road to Character,”[2] emphasize “modesty and humility” and assert that “human beings are blessed with many talents but are also burdened by sinfulness, ignorance and weakness” and that “character emerges from the internal struggles against one’s own limitations.” This at least is what the Syllabus for his “Humility” course at Yale University states. Or as he said in his talk, we are “splendidly endowed, but deeply broken.”

Brooks recalled with gratitude three personal uplifting moments. One was observing his then three young children playing on a beautiful day. Another was watching women in Maryland teaching English to immigrants. The last was sitting at a luncheon next to the Dali Lama and experiencing his inner joy and laughter. These moments produced David’s overwhelming sense of gratitude to have experienced these moments of higher joy, an enlargement of his own heart and an acknowledgement that these had happened to him by the grace of God.

Because issues of morals and character in western culture have been discussed by Christian theologians, his book uses their vocabulary. We need to recover and perhaps modernize that vocabulary, said Brooks, especially to recover the meaning and importance of the concept of sin.

He also mentioned that many contemporary U.S. politicians feel compelled to promote and advertise themselves and as a result start to believe their own propaganda. Exceptions of politicians of modesty and honesty are former Vice President Walter Mondale, a Westminster member who was in the audience; Minnesota’s former U.S. Senator David Durenberger; and current U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar.

His book provides biographical sketches of how 10 different people in different ways created disciplines that built character. He mentioned the following six of them in his talk.

Ida Stover by age 11 had lost both of her parents and then was an overworked indentured servant in another household, but at age 15 she left to be on her own, to get a job and an education. Later she married David Eisenhower, became Ida Eisenhower and raised five sons, one being Dwight D. Eisenhower. After Ike threw a temper tantrum at age 10, Ida paraphrased Proverbs 16:32 to him: “He that conquereth his own soul is greater that he who taketh a city.”[3] In other words, the central drama of your life is fighting against your own sinfulness and weaknesses. Many years later Ike said this was one of the most valuable moments of his life that helped him to recognize his temper as a weakness and to develop techniques to prevent it from interfering with his leading others.

Frances Perkins was a genteel graduate of Mount Holyoke College who found her vocation of improving worker safety by happening to be a witness to the Triangle Shirt Factory Fire in Manhattan, in which many workers lost their lives. She responded to what the world was demanding of her.

Augustine for many years resisted his mother’s efforts to become a Christian, but after he had done so, the two of them shared a beautiful moment in a garden just before she died when “all the clamors of the world slipped into silence” and were “hushed.”

Dorothy Day, a social activist, near the end of her life started to write her “life remembered,” but could not do so. Instead she “thought of our Lord [Jesus], and His visit to us all those centuries ago, and I said to myself that my great luck was to have had Him on my mind for so long in my life!” Day’s “The Long Loneliness” shows her intense self-criticism, her discovery of her vocation and her humility. It is one of Brooks’ favorite books and also of the students in his Yale course on humility.[4]

George Eliot (born Mary Anne Evans) obtained character through her love for George Lewes, and such love, according to Brooks, humbles a person, making you realize you are not in control of your own life; allows you to express tenderness and vulnerability; de-centers your self; and fuses two individuals together.

Brooks advised the high school students in the audience to make the following commitments by the time they were at least in their mid-30’s: adopting an existing faith or philosophy of life; choosing a vocation; getting married; and choosing a community in which to live. Although he did not say so, these commitments may change during your life.

With respect to the marriage commitment, Brooks quoted this beautiful excerpt from a beautiful wedding toast that was offered by his friend and noted American author, Leon Weiseltiere, to an unnamed couple:

  • “Brides and grooms are people who have discovered, by means of love, the local nature of happiness. Love is a revolution in scale, a revision of magnitudes; it is private and it is particular; its object is the specificity of this man and that woman, the distinctness of this spirit and that flesh. Love prefers deep to wide, and here to there; the grasp to the reach. It will not be accelerated, or made efficient: love’s pace is its pace, one of the fundamental temporalities of mortal existence, and it will not be rushed or retarded by even the most glittering pressures of service or success. Love is, or should be, indifferent to history, immune to it — a soft and sturdy haven from it: when the day is done, and the lights are out, and there is only this other heart, this other mind, this other face, to assist one in repelling one’s demons or in greeting one’s angels, it does not matter who the president is. When one consents to marry, one consents to be truly known, which is an ominous prospect; and so one bets on love to correct for the ordinariness of the impression, and to call forth the forgiveness that is invariably required by an accurate perception of oneself. Marriages are exposures. We may be heroes to our spouses, but we may not be idols.”

The unnamed couple who were thus toasted were (a) Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, the author of the award-winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, and a former Harvard Law School Professor and (b) Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law School Professor, an acclaimed author and a former aide to President Obama.

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[1] The audio recording of the speech is available online and later the video of same will be added. . Brooks’ prior appearances at the Forum, also to overflow audiences, are also available online: “The Historic Election of Barack Obama” (Nov. 13, 2008) and “The Social Animal: Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement” (Mar. 31, 2011).

[2] The recent book was discussed in the following prior posts: The Important Moral Virtues in David Brooks’ “The Road to Character “ (May 1, 2015) and David Brooks’ Moral Exemplar (May 2, 2015). Brooks has created a website about the new book to foster readers’ comments about character.

[3] The Authorized King James Version of Proverbs 16:32 states: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.”

[4] The Dorothy Day book is on the 2013 edition of the Syllabus for Brooks’ “Humility” seminar at Yale. The other books on the syllabus as well as the topics covered in the seminar make one wish to be a student again. In light of Brooks’ recent book’s not including biographical sketches of any Jewish people and his comments on that omission to a Jewish critic, it is noteworthy that the Syllabus describes one seminar session as being devoted to Moses, the “most humble man on earth;” the “Jewish formula of character building through obedience to the law;” the “way the rabbinic tradition has interpreted the struggle between internal goodness and the evil urge;” and the Book of Exodus as the reading. The Yale seminar has prompted comments by a student who was in the seminar, criticism of the Syllabus and Brooks’ defense of the seminar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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