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The road to character

The road to character

21 March 2017

By Glynn Harrison

In the end, what is it about our lives that really matters?

A couple of years ago, I gave a tribute at a thanksgiving service held in memory of my friend and mentor, Monty Barker. A fine psychiatrist, inspirational teacher, and outstanding intellect, Monty achieved a great deal in life.

There was potentially much that could be said by poring over his CV. But along with other contributors to that service, it wasn’t his achievements that I found myself rehearsing in tribute to his life: it was his character.

This put me in mind of the New York Times columnist David Brooks’ recent book The Road To Character. In his exploration of the nature and formation of character, Brooks contrasts two broad classes of virtue.

The first class, what Brooks calls “résumé virtues”, refers to the things we put on our CV – the achievements and skills we bring to the market place; the “indicators of esteem” we amass over our professional career.

The second class indexes, what Brooks calls “eulogy virtues”, refers to the things people talk about at your funeral. Brooks contends when people grope around for words to remember us by at our funeral, they don’t focus on our CV virtues.

Sure enough, they will be often be cited, sometimes in abundance. But even our greatest achievements will be qualified with references to character as well: “He turned his company around from a failing corner-shop business to a world-class brand that dominated the market for the better part of three decades, but ... he always found time for the little people, to say hello, to notice how they were.”

It’s the “but” that’s important. It’s the “but” that gets us beyond the external to something deeper, more significant, more ... eternal. It’s as if the human spirit, forced by death to countenance eternal realities, finds itself defaulting to the search for what has eternal significance.

And it isn’t what we achieve. It’s who we are.

Of course, quite often much of what is said at funerals is sentimental fiction, spun through the eyes of spectacles, rose-tinted by grief: “He was a wonderful father and husband” may well gloss a reality that he was married to his job and idolised the wealth that his family shared. But that isn’t my point.

My point is that the human spirit goes searching for these values even when it needs to spin what it finds. When the spectre of another person’s death insists that we face up to our own mortality we sense that what matters, what really matters for all eternity, isn’t what we do. It’s who we are.

In the light of this, Brooks invites us to become what he calls “stumblers”: “External ambitions are never satisfied because there’s always something more to achieve. But the stumblers occasionally experience moments of joy.

"There’s joy in freely chosen obedience to organisations, ideas and people. There’s joy in mutual stumbling. There’s an aesthetic joy we feel when we see morally good action, when we run across someone who is quiet and humble and good, when we see that however old we are, there’s lots to do ahead.”

In other words, in becoming stumblers we let go of our perfectionist pursuits of achievement and find time to ponder what truly endures.

Monty was a stumbler. Like all of us he struggled with status and approval, and an ingrained quest for recognition. But as others grow less flexible with age, set in their ways, captured by the desire for selfjustification, Monty wanted more. In his stumbling he wanted to be better. To be forgiven. To start over again in making a difference in the lives of others and for the Kingdom of God.

That is the road to character.

To stumble and then to discover in God’s grace that what really matters is that we see grace, know forgiveness and refocus around what lasts. And what matters in the end isn’t what we achieve, it’s who we are. That is what people will remember. And that is what will shape the legacy we leave in their lives.

Glynn Harrison was formerly professor and head of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Bristol, and was raised in The Salvation Army. He blogs at glynnharrison.com

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