David Brooks, famous columnist for the New York Times, a Yale University Professor, and a Jew, set out to write about his “Bucket List”. Having accomplished many of his life’s goals with a certain level of worldly success, Brooks realized something was still missing.
What awoke him to this reality? He says:
“About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.
When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character.”
Granted, Brooks doesn’t use the word “saint”, but the kind of person that he’s describing shares a lot in common with what we might call a “holy” person (we will try to explain a few distinctions throughout the post). One day he realized he wanted to be a bit more like them.
“I realized that if I wanted to do that I was going to have to work harder to save my own soul. I was going to have to have the sort of moral adventures that produce that kind of goodness. I was going to have to be better at balancing my life.”
So, now, the important question: How to get there?
“It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?”
Today we would like to share Mr. Brooks’ lists of “eulogy virtues,” examining where they harmonize with the Christian faith, as well as where they are found lacking. As Catholics, we understand that our lives only have meaning if we live them according to God’s plan. The only way that we will ever achieve true happiness is if we put God in the center, not ourselves. Living for mere external achievement means that you allow the years to pass without exploring the deepest parts of you.
1. The Humility Shift
“We live in the culture of the Big Me. The meritocracy wants you to promote yourself. Social media wants you to broadcast a highlight reel of your life. Your parents and teachers were always telling you how wonderful you were.
But all the people I’ve ever deeply admired are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. They have identified their core sin, whether it is selfishness, the desperate need for approval, cowardice, hardheartedness or whatever. They have traced how that core sin leads to the behavior that makes them feel ashamed. They have achieved a profound humility, which has best been defined as an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.”
Here, we couldn’t agree more. While many criticize the Catholic vision of humility and the constant emphasis on self-improvement, history reveals that those who were most aware and accepting of their flaws (in a healthy way) knew where to find the help they needed to do truly great things. St. Paul says it well in Philippians 3:13: “I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: Forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead.” Or again 2 Corinthians 12:10: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
“External success is achieved through competition with others. But character is built during the confrontation with your own weakness. Dwight Eisenhower, for example, realized early on that his core sin was his temper. He developed a moderate, cheerful exterior because he knew he needed to project optimism and confidence to lead. He did silly things to tame his anger. He tk the names of the people he hated, wrote them down on slips of paper and tore them up and threw them in the garbage. Over a lifetime of self-confrontation, he developed a mature temperament. He made himself strong in his weakest places.”
“Virtue” hasn’t been ranked too high on the popularity list since… well… when? Speaking about our weaknesses isn’t exactly how to make friends and influence people. What’s more, many tend to reduce Christian living to external acts of service and solidarity. Granting the evident goodness and necessity of these works, at the heart of the Christian lies self-transformation: becoming more and more like Christ. When we fall we most certainly ask for forgiveness and know that we will never reach perfection in this life, but true transformation begins, in cooperation with the grace of the crucified and resurrected Christ, here and now.
3. The Dependency Leap
“Many people give away the book “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” as a graduation gift. This book suggests that life is an autonomous journey. We master certain skills and experience adventures and certain challenges on our way to individual success. This individualist worldview suggests that character is this little iron figure of willpower inside. But people on the road to character understand that no person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason and compassion are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride and self-deception. We all need redemptive assistance from outside.
People on this road see life as a process of commitment making. Character is defined by how deeply rooted you are. Have you developed deep connections that hold you up in times of challenge and push you toward the good? In the realm of the intellect, a person of character has achieved a settled philosophy about fundamental things. In the realm of emotion, she is embedded in a web of unconditional loves. In the realm of action, she is committed to tasks that can’t be completed in a single lifetime.”
It is important to understand that in order to achieve self-mastery, we all need redemptive assistance from outside. This is where God, the Church and the Sacrament of Confession work on us. We do not do spiritual combat alone.
There is a danger here, however, to consider others as a simple means for reaching my own polished form. According to the Christian vision, the goal is not so much self-perfection as it is communion. We look to better ourselves not to reach a social status, or even a moral one; our final goal is to purify our hearts so as to welcome the eternal embrace of the Divine Trinity, Communion of Love.
So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. – Isaiah 41:10
4. Energizing Love
“Dorothy Day led a disorganized life when she was young: drinking, carousing, a suicide attempt or two, following her desires, unable to find direction. But the birth of her daughter changed her. She wrote of that birth, “If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms.”
That kind of love de-centers the self. It reminds you that your true riches are in another. Most of all, this love electrifies. It puts you in a state of need and makes it delightful to serve what you love. Day’s love for her daughter spilled outward and upward. As she wrote, “No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I often felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.
She made unshakable commitments in all directions. She became a Catholic, started a radical newspaper, opened settlement houses for the poor and lived among the poor, embracing shared poverty as a way to build community, to not only do good, but be good. This gift of love overcame, sometimes, the natural self-centeredness all of us feel.”
There is no greater gift that than the opportunity to love. There are great number of ideas and conceptions about love that Catholics share with many; I suppose one of the principle differences however is the fact that human love is essentially and necessarily received before given. Any conception of love that ignores this receptive dimension is not Christian. This de-centering love that Brooks speaks about takes place only when we have experienced the same: creation, crucifixion, and resurrection are all moments of God’s de-centering (kenosis).
Put simply, John says it best: “As I haved loved you, love one another” (13:34). As humans, we have been created by love and for love. It is only in this light that we can ever understand the words. “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Acts 20:35
5. The Call Within The Call
© Hamed Parham/ Flickr
“We all go into professions for many reasons: money, status, security. But some people have experiences that turn a career into a calling. These experiences quiet the self. All that matters is living up to the standard of excellence inherent in their craft.
Frances Perkins was a young woman who was an activist for progressive causes at the start of the 20th century. She was polite and a bit genteel. But one day she stumbled across the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, and watched dozens of garment workers hurl themselves to their deaths rather than be burned alive. That experience shamed her moral sense and purified her ambition. It was her call within a call.
After that, she turned herself into an instrument for the cause of workers’ rights. She was willing to work with anybody, compromise with anybody, push through hesitation. She even changed her appearance so she could become a more effective instrument for the movement. She became the first woman in a United States cabinet, under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and emerged as one of the great civic figures of the 20th century.”
The difference between someone who is doing their “job” and someone living their “vocation” is obvious to anyone who has eyes to see; and this applies to Christian living as well. The call exists since our birth: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). Yet often there are certain events, sometimes tragedies, that help us to perceive the call with greater clarity and intensity. It’s worth noting again that, according to the Christian vision, the call is always, ultimately, a call to enter into a relationship. Our mission, more than to fight “against” some kind of system, is always to fight in favor of our fellow man (For an example, check out CSD 306). As we draw closer to Christ, we discover what he asks of us together with the energy to take on the tasks that he entrusts us with; and thus we are able become factors of great change in this world.
Seen from a different angle, our first vocation is to become saints but the “call within the call” is the specific way in which God wishes us to reach holiness (married life, consecrated life, priesthood, etc). Once again, the Christian life begins with God’s action, not our own. God calls, we respond. Greatness is found, then, not so much in what one does, but in the greatness of the call that one serves.