I am a little bit obsessed with identifying and trying to improve upon the weaknesses and flaws in my personality. It is a vain thing to which I seem to return; the relentless pursuit of self-improvement via self-loathing. One morning last week I sat in a café and wrote a long list of all the things I thought were wrong with my character. I’ll spare you the details.
In the afternoon, I got stuck into an assignment for an upcoming unit on Leadership and Management. The task was to review two books. I’d finished one and started another, but the second book (chosen because there was a copy available in the library) was like eating dry weetbix. The third and final option was available only as an e-book so I reluctantly purchased it. The audible version was just a couple more dollars, so I got that too.
I started listening to The Road to Character by David Brooks while I hung washing. Then I listened while I scrubbed the dishes, while I drove to work, later when I sat in Dome and ate carrot cake, while I cooked dinner, and even when my seven-year-old clung to me as we took a clunky, rollerskate clad roll to the park. This is how a mother of four gets her study done.
I now have to write an essay about The Road to Character. But the thing about academic writing is that it is strict. You can’t wax lyrical about all the ways the book spoke to your heart, brought tears to your eyes, or made you laugh out loud as you strung thirty-three pairs of small pink knickers on the line. This was that kind of book for me.
Brooks begins by explaining that virtues fall into two broad categories; those that we put on our resume and develop as strategies for creating lives of higher status and victory, and those that are shared at our funeral, what he calls the eulogy virtues. Brooks focuses on the biographies of individuals who were a mixed bag of virtue and vice. Each of the characters studied struggled with a vulnerability or internal conflict that sometimes mastered them. In each case, the individual, over their lifetime, grew into a person of strong character who overcame their weaknesses and ultimately was redeemed by them.
The book is dense and I will probably return to it many times and find something new to contemplate. It delved into issues such as sin, humility, vocation, marriage, sex, self-control, suffering, vanity, failure, and more. In each of the biographies, the individuals experience great moral failures yet through humility, self-examination, and a desire to do better, develop a richness of character, a substantial and deep life, and inner tranquility.
I think God used this book to calm my worries. I do worry a lot about whether I am growing as a person. I replay conversations in my head and analyse how I could have done better by the person I spoke to. I don’t like to be in conflict with people and I am very conscious of my arrogant attempts to project a certain image of myself. There is a lot that I don’t like about me, and I dwell on that. And then I worry that dwelling on my flaws and weakness is just another form of vanity and lack of humility. As Timothy Keller says, humility is not just thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.
I write these confessions about my hyper critical self in my public journal knowing the risk of once again being mansplained about my worth in Christ, and of God’s redeeming power. I do know all of that, and Brooks also covers that in his book. These are not the things I needed to be reminded of. I think the thing that God really wants me to remember and hold onto is what Brooks says in his closing remarks:
“We are all stumblers, and the beauty and meaning of life are in the stumbling- in recognizing the stumbling and trying to become more graceful as the years go by…
The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance here and there, sometimes falling to her knees. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature, her mistakes, and weaknesses, with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness. She is sometimes ashamed of the perversities in her nature- the selfishness, the self-deceit, the occasional desire to put lower loves above higher ones…
But she repents and is redeemed and tries again, a process that gives dignity to her failing.”
I feel as though this book saw me.
I feel as though it offered me encouragement that it is okay, good even, to look at all the things that are wrong with me, but mostly I feel as though it reminded me that I have a lifetime in which to grow more Christ-like in my character.
Brooks met me where I was at with reassurance:
“People do get better at living, at least if they are willing to humble themselves and learn.”