The Road to Character by David Brooks though published in 2015 seems extremely relevant to 2017 as we enter a new political era. In this book, New York Times columnist Brooks describes the live of a dozen or so famous people to show the distinction between what he calls resume virtues and eulogy virtues, what we put on our job applications and what people will say at our funeral. In the age of the selfie he claims we put too much emphasis on career-oriented ambition and less emphasis on moral qualities and the notion of being good to do good.
The first part of the book explores this distinction and in subsequent chapters Brooks applies this distinction to the lives of people like Dorothy Day, Dwight Eisenhower, Frances Perkins, Augustine, A Philip Randolph, George Marshall and others.
The author’s choice of personalities presents an historical viewpoint of what he calls the change from the Little Me (humility) to the Big Me (I am the center of the universe), the change from acceptance of brokenness and overcoming adversity to the notion of getting in touch with the real self with unlimited potential.
For each personality Brooks tries to show how the person has cultivated a strong character and accepted a vocation to serve even if it meant closing off other good options. Historically he traces the development of the individualistic society in which a person is less engaged with others and is characterized by the notion that “all answers are found in you”. He shows how the lexicon of the individualistic society can even be traced in Google to show the dwindling of words related to the age of the Little Me.
The last chapter of The Road to Character is a stand-alone catalog of propositions which define the eulogy virtues. Brooks lists fifteen which could be the basis of reflection and meditation for a good long time.
Probably a better title for the book would have been The Long Road to Character since it takes a life time of struggle to understand the distinction between vocation and ambition. This is what seems to be lacking in the present political and social climate. We are in the era of moral mediocrity in which personal ambition is valued over the opportunity to serve and the rugged individual is honored over the communitarian.