“Resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.”
Those are the terms New York Times columnist David Brooks uses in his book The Road to Character to describe the two kinds of values people are seeking in life.
On one hand, there are the resume virtues, which Brooks describes as “the skills you bring to the marketplace.” These are the kinds of skills seniors are seeking to add to their resumes. Eulogy virtues, on the other hand, are “the ones talked about at your funeral.” These virtues are the things people remember about you once you’re gone: Were you a kind person? How did you love other people? Were you a person of integrity?
Brooks posits that, although both sets of virtues are necessary, in our minds we all know the eulogy virtues are more imperative. However, despite that knowledge, our culture has it switched. Brooks says that since the end of WWII, Americans have become more self-focused and by extension, more resume- virtue focused. Brooks wrote his book trying to fix that thinking in his own mind and in the minds of others.
“Our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light,” Brooks writes.
Throughout the rest of the book, Brooks looks to historical examples to find people who have walked the road to character, who through struggle and hardship began to radiate that “inner light.” With examples such as Douglas MacArthur, George Eliot, and St. Augustine, Brooks uses a diverse list of examples, not to show perfect people, but to show people who through struggle have made it further down the road of character than most.
Several things struck me while reading The Road to Character.
First was the book’s author. Brooks, 54, has had a winding spiritual journey. He is a professing observant Jew, but recently his writings have signaled a draw towards Christianity—several statements in the chapter on St. Augustine are hard to picture being written by an unbeliever. Whatever his true religious views, it was refreshing to have a member of the media—especially someone from a paper not known for its conservatism—draw attention back to the importance of godly character.
As someone who is surrounded by Christian influences, I can forget that unsaved individuals are aware of the emptiness of their ways. The book was a good reminder that unbelievers are searching for truth. Brooks states that he wrote the book “to save his own soul.” The media needs more individuals who remind the public of what truly matters in life.
Second, I wish I could have had Brooks’ book back in 2012, my freshman year of college—unfortunately, the work wasn’t published until 2014. Nor would my freshman self have likely been mature enough to receive Brooks’ message.
However, the work might have greatly affected my mindset going in to college. Growing up in a Christian environment, I was accustomed to rules. My parents set guidelines for me, my school was regulated, and church taught me the do’s and don’ts. By the time I was ready to enter college, rules were old hat. I knew I would be placing myself under a number of guidelines when I enrolled at BJU, but how different could college be from my childhood?
To me, rules had become like guardrails on the side of the road—there for my benefit and safety, but I don’t really think about them while I’m driving.
But Brooks’ book awoke me to the fact of how grateful I should be that I live in an environment where I’m encouraged to progress down the road of character. In the book he describes how little our culture values personal discipline. Yet the culture I live in every day teaches me just the opposite.
Now I’m not saying I’m going to pull out my dog-eared and highlighted Student Handbook every day and memorize my favorite rules. But now instead of being oblivious to, or even burdened by the rules, I’ve tried to build more of an appreciation for them.
After all, shouldn’t I be grateful for a University that wants me to have both an impressive resume and an impressive eulogy?