The Road to Character
On Sunday evenings my local NPR station rebroadcasts old radio programs. A few years ago I was driving home and heard a program called Command Performance,
which was a variety show that went out to the troops during World War II. The episode I happened to hear was broadcast the day after V--J Day, on August 15, 1945.
The episode featured some of the era’s biggest celebrities: Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, and many others. But the most striking feature of the show was its tone of self--effacement and humility. The Allies had just completed one of the noblest military victories in human history. And yet there was no chest beating. Nobody was erecting triumphal arches.
“Well, it looks like this is it,” the host, Bing Crosby, opened. “What can you say at a time like this? You can’t throw your skimmer in the air. That’s for run--of--the mill holidays. I guess all anybody can do is thank God it’s over.” The mezzo--soprano Risë Stevens came on and sang a solemn version of “Ave Maria,” and then Crosby came back on to summarize the mood: “Today, though, our deep--down feeling is one of humility.”
That sentiment was repeated throughout the broadcast. The actor Burgess Meredith read a passage written by Ernie Pyle, the war correspondent. Pyle had been killed just a few months before, but he had written an article anticipating what victory would mean: “We won this war because our men are brave and because of many other things—-because of Russia, England, and China and the passage of time and the gift of nature’s materials. We did not win it because destiny created us better than all other people. I hope that in victory we are more grateful than proud.”
The show mirrored the reaction of the nation at large. There were rapturous celebrations, certainly. Sailors in San Francisco commandeered cable cars and looted liquor stores. The streets of New York’s garment district were five inches deep in confetti.1 But the mood was divided. Joy gave way to solemnity and self--doubt.
This was in part because the war had been such an epochal event, and had produced such rivers of blood, that individuals felt small in comparison. There was also the manner in which the war in the -Pacific had ended—-with the atomic bomb. People around the world had just seen the savagery human beings are capable of. Now here was a weapon that could make that savagery apocalyptic. “The knowledge of victory was as charged with sorrow and doubt as with joy and gratitude,” James Agee wrote in an editorial that week for Time
But the modest tone of Command Performance
wasn’t just a matter of mood or style. The people on that broadcast had been part of one of the most historic victories ever known. But they didn’t go around telling themselves how great they were. They didn’t print up bumper stickers commemorating their own awesomeness. Their first instinct was to remind themselves they were not morally superior to anyone else. Their collective impulse was to warn themselves against pride and self--glorification. They intuitively resisted the natural human tendency toward excessive self--love.
I arrived home before the program was over and listened to that radio show in my driveway for a time. Then I went inside and turned on a football game. A quarterback threw a short pass to a wide receiver, who was tackled almost immediately for a two--yard gain. The defensive player did what all professional athletes do these days in moments of personal accomplishment. He did a self--puffing victory dance, as the camera lingered.
It occurred to me that I had just watched more self--celebration after a two--yard gain than I had heard after the United States won World War II.
This little contrast set off a chain of thoughts in my mind. It occurred to me that this shift might symbolize a shift in culture, a shift from a culture of self--effacement that says “Nobody’s better than me, but I’m no better than anyone else” to a culture of self--promotion that says “Recognize my accomplishments, I’m pretty special.” That contrast, while nothing much in itself, was like a doorway into the different ways it is possible to live in this world.
In the years following that Command Performance
episode, I went back and studied that time and the people who were prominent then. The research reminded me first of all that none of us should ever wish to go back to the culture of the mid--twentieth century. It was a more racist, sexist, and anti--Semitic culture. Most of us would not have had the opportunities we enjoy if we had lived back then. It was also a more boring culture, with bland food and homogeneous living arrangements. It was an emotionally cold culture. Fathers, in particular, frequently were unable to express their love for their own children. Husbands were unable to see the depth in their own wives. In so many ways, life is better now than it was then.
But it did occur to me that there was perhaps a strain of humility that was more common then than now, that there was a moral ecology, stretching back centuries but less prominent now, encouraging people to be more skeptical of their desires, more aware of their own weaknesses, more intent on combatting the flaws in their own natures and turning weakness into strength. People in this tradition, I thought, are less likely to feel that every thought, feeling, and achievement should be immediately shared with the world at large.
The popular culture seemed more reticent in the era of Command Performance.
There were no message T--shirts back then, no exclamation points on the typewriter keyboards, no sympathy ribbons for various diseases, no vanity license plates, no bumper stickers with personal or moral declarations. People didn’t brag about their college affiliations or their vacation spots with little stickers on the rear windows of their cars. There was stronger social sanction against (as they would have put it) blowing your own trumpet, getting above yourself, being too big for your britches.
The social code was embodied in the self--effacing style of actors like Gregory Peck or Gary Cooper, or the character Joe Friday on Dragnet.
When Franklin Roosevelt’s aide Harry Hopkins lost a son in World War II, the military brass wanted to put his other sons out of harm’s way. Hopkins rejected this idea, writing, with the understatement more common in that era, that his other sons shouldn’t be given safe assignments just because their brother “had some bad luck in the Pacific.”2
Of the twenty--three men and women who served in Dwight Eisenhower’s cabinets, only one, the secretary of agriculture, published a memoir afterward, and it was so discreet as to be soporific. By the time the Reagan administration rolled around, twelve of his thirty cabinet members published memoirs, almost all of them self--advertising.3
When the elder George Bush, who was raised in that era, was running for president, he, having inculcated the values of his childhood, resisted speaking about himself. If a speechwriter put the word “I” in one of his speeches, he’d instinctively cross it out. The staff would beg him: You’re running for president. You’ve got to talk about yourself. Eventually they’d cow him into doing so. But the next day he’d get a call from his mother. “George, you’re talking about yourself again,” she’d say. And Bush would revert to form. No more I’s in the speeches. No more self--promotion.
The Big Me
Over the next few years I collected data to suggest that we have seen a broad shift from a culture of humility to the culture of what you might call the Big Me, from a culture that encouraged people to think humbly of themselves to a culture that encouraged people to see themselves as the center of the universe.
It wasn’t hard to find such data. For example, in 1950, the Gallup Organization asked high school seniors if they considered themselves to be a very important person. At that point, 12 percent said yes. The same question was asked in 2005, and this time it wasn’t 12 percent who considered themselves very important, it was 80 percent.
Psychologists have a thing called the narcissism test. They read people statements and ask if the statements apply to them. Statements such as “I like to be the center of attention . . . I show off if I get the chance because I am extraordinary . . . Somebody should write a -biography about me.” The median narcissism score has risen 30 percent in the last two decades. Ninety--three percent of young people score higher than the middle score just twenty years ago.4 The largest gains have been in the number of people who agree with the statements “I am an extraordinary person” and “I like to look at my body.”
Along with this apparent rise in self--esteem, there has been a tremendous increase in the desire for fame. Fame used to rank low as a life’s ambition for most people. In a 1976 survey that asked people to list their life goals, fame ranked fifteenth out of sixteen. By 2007, 51 percent of young people reported that being famous was one of their top personal goals.5 In one study, middle school girls were asked who they would most like to have dinner with. Jennifer Lopez came in first, Jesus Christ came in second, and Paris Hilton third. The girls were then asked which of the following jobs they would like to have. Nearly twice as many said they’d rather be a celebrity’s personal assistant—-for example, Justin Bieber’s—-than president of Harvard. (Though, to be fair, I’m pretty sure the president of Harvard would also rather be Justin Bieber’s personal assistant.)
As I looked around the popular culture I kept finding the same messages everywhere: You are special. Trust yourself. Be true to yourself. Movies from Pixar and Disney are constantly telling children how wonderful they are. Commencement speeches are larded with the same clichés: Follow your passion. Don’t accept limits. Chart your own course. You have a responsibility to do great things because you are so great. This is the gospel of self--trust.
As Ellen DeGeneres put it in a 2009 commencement address, “My advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine.” Celebrity chef Mario Batali advised graduates to follow “your own truth, expressed consistently by you.” Anna Quindlen urged another audience to have the courage to “honor your character, your intellect, your inclinations, and, yes, your soul by listening to its clean clear voice instead of following the muddied messages of a timid world.”
In her mega--selling book Eat, Pray, Love
(I am the only man ever to finish this book), Elizabeth Gilbert wrote that God manifests himself through “my own voice from within my own self. . . . God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are.”6
I began looking at the way we raise our children and found signs of this moral shift. For example, the early Girl Scout handbooks preached an ethic of self--sacrifice and self--effacement. The chief obstacle to happiness, the handbook exhorted, comes from the overeager desire to have people think about you.
By 1980, as James Davison Hunter has pointed out, the tone was very different. You Make the Difference: The Handbook for Cadette and -Senior Girl Scouts
was telling girls to pay more
attention to themselves: “How can you get more in touch with you
? What are you
feeling? . . . Every option available to you through Senior Scouting can, in some way, help you to a better understanding of yourself. . . . Put yourself in the ‘center stage’ of your thoughts to gain perspective on your own ways of feeling, thinking and acting.”7
The shift can even be seen in the words that flow from the pulpit. Joel Osteen, one of the most popular megachurch leaders today, writes from Houston, Texas. “God didn’t create you to be average,” Osteen says in his book Become a Better You
. “You were made to excel. You were made to leave a mark on this generation. . . . Start [believing] ‘I’ve been chosen, set apart, destined to live in victory.’ ”8
The Humble Path
As years went by and work on this book continued, my thoughts returned to that episode of Command Performance.
I was haunted by the quality of humility I heard in those voices.
There was something aesthetically beautiful about the self--effacement the people on that program displayed. The self--effacing person is soothing and gracious, while the self--promoting person is fragile and jarring. Humility is freedom from the need to prove you are superior all the time, but egotism is a ravenous hunger in a small space—-self--concerned, competitive, and distinction--hungry. Humility is infused with lovely emotions like admiration, companionship, and gratitude. “Thankfulness,” the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, said, “is a soil in which pride does not easily grow.”9
There is something intellectually impressive about that sort of humility, too. We have, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes, an “almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”10 Humility is the awareness that there’s a lot you don’t know and that a lot of what you think you know is distorted or wrong.
This is the way humility leads to wisdom. Montaigne once wrote, “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.” That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.
The people we think are wise have, to some degree, overcome the biases and overconfident tendencies that are infused in our nature. In its most complete meaning, intellectual humility is accurate self--awareness from a distance. It is moving over the course of one’s life from the adolescent’s close--up view of yourself, in which you fill the whole canvas, to a landscape view in which you see, from a wider perspective, your strengths and weaknesses, your connections and dependencies, and the role you play in a larger story.
Finally, there is something morally impressive about humility. Every epoch has its own preferred methods of self--cultivation, its own ways to build character and depth. The people on that Command Performance
broadcast were guarding themselves against some of their least attractive tendencies, to be prideful, self--congratulatory, hubristic.
Today, many of us see our life through the metaphor of a -journey—a journey through the external world and up the ladder of -success. When we think about making a difference or leading a life with purpose, we often think of achieving something external—-performing some service that will have an impact on the world, creating a successful company, or doing something for the community.
Truly humble people also use that journey metaphor to describe their own lives. But they also use, alongside that, a different metaphor, which has more to do with the internal life. This is the metaphor of self--confrontation. They are more likely to assume that we are all deeply divided selves, both splendidly endowed and deeply flawed—-that we each have certain talents but also certain weaknesses. And if we habitually fall for those temptations and do not struggle against the weaknesses in ourselves, then we will gradually spoil some core piece of ourselves. We will not be as good, internally, as we want to be. We will fail in some profound way.
For people of this sort, the external drama up the ladder of success is important, but the inner struggle against one’s own weaknesses is the central drama of life. As the popular minister Harry Emerson Fosdick put it in his 1943 book On Being a Real Person,
“The beginning of worth--while living is thus the confrontation with ourselves.”11
Truly humble people are engaged in a great effort to magnify what is best in themselves and defeat what is worst, to become strong in the weak places. They start with an acute awareness of the bugs in their own nature. Our basic problem is that we are self--centered, a plight beautifully captured in the famous commencement address David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005:
Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self--centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard--wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.
This self--centeredness leads in several unfortunate directions. It leads to selfishness, the desire to use other people as means to get things for yourself. It also leads to pride, the desire to see yourself as superior to everybody else. It leads to a capacity to ignore and rationalize your own imperfections and inflate your virtues. As we go through life, most of us are constantly comparing and constantly finding ourselves slightly better than other people—-more virtuous, with better judgment, with better taste. We’re constantly seeking recognition, and painfully sensitive to any snub or insult to the status we believe we have earned for ourselves.
Some perversity in our nature leads us to put lower loves above higher ones. We all love and desire a multitude of things: friendship, family, popularity, country, money, and so on. And we all have a sense that some loves are higher or more important than other loves. I suspect we all rank those loves in pretty much the same way. We all know that the love you feel for your children or parents should be higher than the love you have for money. We all know the love you have for the truth should be higher than the love you have for popularity. Even in this age of relativism and pluralism, the moral hierarchy of the heart is one thing we generally share, at least most of the time.
But we often put our loves out of order. If someone tells you something in confidence and then you blab it as good gossip at a dinner party, you are putting your love of popularity above your love of friendship. If you talk more at a meeting than you listen, you may be putting your ardor to outshine above learning and companionship. We do this all the time.
People who are humble about their own nature are moral realists. Moral realists are aware that we are all built from “crooked timber”—-from Immanuel Kant’s famous line, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” People in this “crooked--timber” school of humanity have an acute awareness of their own flaws and believe that character is built in the struggle against their own weaknesses. As Thomas Merton wrote, “Souls are like athletes that need opponents worthy of them, if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers.”12
You can see evidence of the inner struggle in such people’s journals. They are exultant on days when they win some small victory over selfishness and hard--heartedness. They are despondent on days when they let themselves down, when they avoid some charitable task because they were lazy or tired, or fail to attend to a person who wanted to be heard. They are more likely see their life as a moral adventure story. As the British writer Henry Fairlie put it, “If we acknowledge that our inclination to sin is part of our natures, and that we will never wholly eradicate it, there is at least something for us to do in our lives that will not in the end seem just futile and absurd.”
I have a friend who spends a few moments in bed at night reviewing the mistakes of his day. His central sin, from which many of his other sins branch out, is a certain hardness of heart. He’s a busy guy with many people making demands on his time. Sometimes he is not fully present for people who are asking his advice or revealing some vulnerability. Sometimes he is more interested in making a good -impression than in listening to other people in depth. Maybe he spent more time at a meeting thinking about how he might seem impressive than about what others were actually saying. Maybe he flattered people too unctuously.
Each night, he catalogs the errors. He tallies his recurring core sins and the other mistakes that might have branched off from them. Then he develops strategies for how he might do better tomorrow. Tomorrow he’ll try to look differently at people, pause more before people. He’ll put care above prestige, the higher thing above the lower thing. We all have a moral responsibility to be more moral every day, and he will struggle to inch ahead each day in this most important sphere.
People who live this way believe that character is not innate or automatic. You have to build it with effort and artistry. You can’t be the good person you want to be unless you wage this campaign. You won’t even achieve enduring external success unless you build a solid moral core. If you don’t have some inner integrity, eventually your Watergate, your scandal, your betrayal, will happen. Adam I ultimately depends upon Adam II.
Now, I have used the word “struggle” and “fight” in the previous passages. But it’s a mistake to think that the moral struggle against internal weakness is a struggle the way a war is a struggle or the way a boxing match is a struggle—-filled with clash of arms and violence and aggression. Moral realists sometimes do hard things, like standing firm against evil and imposing intense self--discipline on their desires. But character is built not only through austerity and hardship. It is also built sweetly through love and pleasure. When you have deep friendships with good people, you copy and then absorb some of their best traits. When you love a person deeply, you want to serve them and earn their regard. When you experience great art, you widen your repertoire of emotions. Through devotion to some cause, you elevate your desires and organize your energies.
Moreover, the struggle against the weaknesses in yourself is never a solitary struggle. No person can achieve self--mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason, compassion, and character are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride, greed, and self--deception. Everybody needs redemptive assistance from -outside—from family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, exemplars, and, for believers, God. We all need people to tell us when we are wrong, to advise us on how to do right, and to encourage, support, arouse, cooperate, and inspire us along the way.
There’s something democratic about life viewed in this way. It doesn’t matter if you work on Wall Street or at a charity distributing medicine to the poor. It doesn’t matter if you are at the top of the income scale or at the bottom. There are heroes and schmucks in all worlds. The most important thing is whether you are willing to engage in moral struggle against yourself. The most important thing is whether you are willing to engage this struggle well—-joyfully and compassionately. Fairlie writes, “At least if we recognize that we sin, know that we are individually at war, we may go to war as warriors do, with something of valor and zest and even mirth.”13 Adam I achieves success by winning victories over others. But Adam II builds character by winning victories over the weaknesses in himself.
The people in this book led diverse lives. Each one of them exemplifies one of the activities that lead to character. But there is one pattern that recurs: They had to go down to go up. They had to descend into the valley of humility to climb to the heights of character.
The road to character often involves moments of moral crisis, confrontation, and recovery. When they were in a crucible moment, they suddenly had a greater ability to see their own nature. The everyday self--deceptions and illusions of self--mastery were shattered. They had to humble themselves in self--awareness if they had any hope of rising up transformed. Alice had to be small to enter Wonderland. Or, as Kierkegaard put it, “Only the one who descends into the underworld rescues the beloved.”
But then the beauty began. In the valley of humility they learned to quiet the self. Only by quieting the self could they see the world clearly. Only by quieting the self could they understand other people and accept what they are offering.
When they had quieted themselves, they had opened up space for grace to flood in. They found themselves helped by people they did not expect would help them. They found themselves understood and cared for by others in ways they did not imagine beforehand. They found themselves loved in ways they did not deserve. They didn’t have to flail about, because hands were holding them up.
Before long, people who have entered the valley of humility feel themselves back in the uplands of joy and commitment. They’ve thrown themselves into work, made new friends, and cultivated new loves. They realize, with a shock, that they’ve traveled a long way since the first days of their crucible. They turn around and see how much ground they have left behind. Such people don’t come out healed; they come out different. They find a vocation or calling. They commit themselves to some long obedience and dedicate themselves to some desperate lark that gives life purpose.
Each phase of this experience has left a residue on such a person’s soul. The experience has reshaped their inner core and given it great coherence, solidity, and weight. People with character may be loud or quiet, but they do tend to have a certain level of self--respect. Self--respect is not the same as self--confidence or self--esteem. Self--respect is not based on IQ or any of the mental or physical gifts that help get you into a competitive college. It is not comparative. It is not earned by being better than other people at something. It is earned by being better than you used to be, by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation. It emerges in one who is morally dependable. Self--respect is produced by inner triumphs, not external ones. It can only be earned by a person who has endured some internal temptation, who has confronted their own weaknesses and who knows, “Well, if worse comes to worst, I can endure that. I can overcome that.”
The sort of process I’ve just described can happen in big ways. In every life there are huge crucible moments, altering ordeals, that either make you or break you. But this process can also happen in daily, gradual ways. Every day it’s possible to recognize small flaws, to reach out to others, to try to correct errors. Character is built both through drama and through the everyday.
What was on display in Command Performance
was more than just an aesthetic or a style. The more I looked into that period, the more I realized I was looking into a different moral country. I began to see a different view of human nature, a different attitude about what is important in life, a different formula for how to live a life of character and depth. I don’t know how many people in those days hewed to this different moral ecology, but some people did, and I found that I admired them immensely.
My general belief is that we’ve accidentally left this moral tradition behind. Over the last several decades, we’ve lost this language, this way of organizing life. We’re not bad. But we are morally inarticulate. We’re not more selfish or venal than people in other times, but we’ve lost the understanding of how character is built. The “crooked timber” moral tradition—-based on the awareness of sin and the confrontation with sin—-was an inheritance passed down from generation to generation. It gave people a clearer sense of how to cultivate the eulogy virtues, how to develop the Adam II side of their nature. Without it, there is a certain superficiality to modern culture, especially in the moral sphere.
The central fallacy of modern life is the belief that accomplishments of the Adam I realm can produce deep satisfaction. That’s false. Adam I’s desires are infinite and always leap out ahead of whatever has just been achieved. Only Adam II can experience deep satisfaction. Adam I aims for happiness, but Adam II knows that happiness is insufficient. The ultimate joys are moral joys. In the pages ahead, I will try to offer some real--life examples of how this sort of life was lived. We can’t and shouldn’t want to return to the past. But we can rediscover this moral tradition, relearn this vocabulary of character, and incorporate it into our own lives.
You can’t build Adam II out of a recipe book. There is no seven--point program. But we can immerse ourselves in the lives of outstanding people and try to understand the wisdom of the way they lived. I’m hoping you’ll be able to pick out a few lessons that are important to you in the pages ahead, even if they are not the same ones that seem important to me. I’m hoping you and I will both emerge from the next nine chapters slightly different and slightly better.