David Brooks is one of my preferred writers. I’m currently reading his new book, The Road To Character, which chronicles his attempt to cultivate a deeper character, mostly by looking into what he calls “eulogy virtues”, the stuff you want your loved ones to say about you when you cark it, as opposed to your CV virtues.

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Brooks has fraud syndrome. He is so self-aware that his humanity repulses him. This tendency seems to go hand-in-hand with having an overactive mind, don’t you find? And so it is that he finds himself shallow. And in need of a deeper character.

“I have to work harder than most people to avoid a life of smug superficiality,” he writes.

I’ll report back on the book’s worth shortly. Meantime, I’m intrigued by this initial thought bomb that he throws:

“It doesn’t matter if you work on Wall Street or at a charity distributing medicine to the poor. The most important thing is whether you are willing to engage in moral struggle against yourself.”

I agree. The most pious person can merely go through the motions of “being good”. It can be “surface good” only. Conversely, a financier can go home and take very good hard looks at herself each night and radiate her “give-a-shitness” to colleagues and friends each day. It’s this giving a shit and delving deep that propels us forward and connects and inspires betterment all around. Regardless of the environs.

Moral struggle exposes truth. Moral struggle radiates and spreads and provides a stable pivot point from which so much of life can launch from. Which is ironic, because anyone who struggles with themselves will so often feel uncertain.

I’m coming to realize, however, that the truth and vulnerability that emerges from this moral struggle is the most certain thing we can offer the planet right now.

Are you able to see your moral struggle with yourself in this way?

Have your say, leave a comment.

  • Love this Sarah. Need more time to process it – but love the thoughts this has sparked

  • Tracy

    very welcome and thought provoking and i love that this is the content of your blog today …we are all the better for delving :)…..i look forward to your review when finished

  • feliss

    Hmmmm … I get it and I agree, broadly speaking. However I am a bit wary of the moral struggle thing because I think it is possible to do this – for me to question my character and to struggle internally – without changing my behaviour. In fact, I think that’s what a lot of us do every day. I know you say a person can radiate their “give-a-shitness” but often I think we just struggle and don’t use what we learn as a catalyst for change. Just a thought.

    • Caroline

      I agree. This post is timely because I have been struggling more often that usual with the idea that I should be doing MORE and striving to not live my life superficially. However the struggle is a slow moving process as I don’t see any real change. What real change can one commit to? I like the example of the Wall St worker vs. the charity worker, and the notion that you don’t have to give up all material possessions to be selfless although at times when I contemplate the state of the worlds affairs I feel that would be the easiest option. A real ‘all or nothing’ mentality. But of course I feel as though giving a little is never enough. And where to draw the line? So many questions…

    • Thanks for sharing, Feliss x

  • Ian

    Sarah, I’m about to dive into Brooks’ book having read a few interviews with him about it. I struggle with my humanity most days (right now in fact) but also important we exercise grace to ourselves. I’m looking forward to seeing what you think about the book.

    • Thanks Ian, hope you find something in it too.

  • JK

    I am teaching ethics/philosophy at a high school – or well, that is my subject, because many of the points raised in this post are also related to the question of whether you can actually teach such a thing as ethics, moral values or the like. Some people think I should teach my students the core values our society (by and large) agrees on (so that they know exactly what they should do in any given situation), but shouldn’t I rather expose them to all the exciting ideas that are out there and encourage them to become critical and independent? And this implies exactly that they won’t be ready to accept whatever moral values I (or the school or parents or our society) will throw at them.

    After all, that’s one of the main problems of ethics – there is always a gap between knowing what is good or right and actually acting upon that knowledge. And this means in turn that just by looking at the way someone is acting, you’ll never be able to tell what motivated this person – is it because she/he is convinced that this is the right thing to do? Does she/he thinks this is what other people expect her/him to do? Or is there something entirely different behind it? Would the person do the same thing if nobody were around to witness it?

    So I think I agree with the necessity of engaging in a moral struggle – I do, however, have problems with the term “struggle”. It implies that this is something incredibly hard and difficult – like a tough fight you can never win. Yet to overcome the fraud syndrome (and I know exactly what he means by that!) is also extremely liberating. So I’d rather go for taking over moral responsibility (a term which I think you, Sarah, have also used before) – yes, it isn’t always an easy process, and yes, it’s never finished, but let’s not forget that it is also empowering.

  • Thanks Sarah, I’m taking this with me to sit under a tree in the park and contemplate at lunch today. So much true-ness and echoey comfort and understanding in this short post. Thank you.

  • Merit La Frenière

    Oh dear, Sarah. You are one of my “preferred” bloggers. But do you really know David Brooks? He’s one of our major American apologists for, well, everything greedy, stupid and hypocritical about America. When we found out he had written a book on character, my husband and I had a good belly laugh.

  • trevo

    I think it is part of the spiritual evolutionary process to be able have an Honest dialogue with oneself,