New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks published a remarkable book in 2015, one whose theme speaks to a gnawing hunger in my heart.
The Road to Character was a gift from a dear friend. “I could tell just from listening to the introduction,” she wrote in the letter that accompanied the gift, “that this was a tool I needed in my life as I struggle once again with pride and assumption.”
I’ve been returning to The Road to Character ever since. I didn’t agree with the book’s every assertion, but I was profoundly affected by its premise. The road to character is the path to humility. It is the painful path to the healing of the soul.
Humility is the most undervalued quality in today’s world.
Early in The Road to Character Brooks reflects on the experience of listening to an episode of the radio variety show Command Performance (transmitted by short wave to American troops during World War II) that was broadcast the day after V-J Day, on August 15, 1945.
“Today,” said host Bing Crosby in a sentiment Brooks found present throughout the show, “…our deep-down feeling is one of humility.” Brooks listened to this broadcast in his car, and when he made it home, he turned on the television to watch a football game.
“A quarterback threw a short pass to a wide receiver, who was tackled immediately for a two-yard gain,” he writes. “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.”
The obvious contrast presented itself to the writer’s mind.
It occurred to me that I had just watched more self-celebration after a two-yard gain than I had after America won World War II.
Now David Brooks is no cranky conservative, as anyone who reads him knows. He quickly points out that “None of us should ever wish to go back to the culture of the mid-twentieth century.”
America in the 1940’s was a more racist and sexist culture, its opportunities were fewer; it was more homogeonously bland and in some ways, emotionally colder. Not a time we should long for in blind nostalgia. Nevertheless, writes Brooks:
[I]t 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.
Only three years have passed since the publication of The Road to Character, the cultural slide from humility to pride is more marked than ever. I’m thinking we could strike the “perhaps” from that sentence considering not only the antics of athletes, but of politicians and journalists both left and right, of entertainment award winners, of Youtube video actors and our own social media feeds.
Many of us are aware of the part, however small, that we’ve played in the growing problem. We’re beginning to get what repentance might mean. We’re hungry for humility in our hearts. We know we lack it.
A year ago, I shared my well-deserved family nickname, Babbling Brook, with Sparrowfare readers. Encouraged to flaunt my verbal skills, I’ve always been enamored with my own opinions and my own voice and oblivious to the possibility that I might be over-chatting my welcome.
Just a few months back I had a fresh eye-opener concerning my own tendencies to show off and make a splash. During a family game of Imaginiff we were asked to imagine me as a dive into the water. What kind of dive would I be? My beloved family members unanimously chose the metaphor “cannonball” over my preferred choice, “swan dive.”
Really?? Once I recovered from the sting, I recognized the grace I was being given: a moment of self-revelation. Indeed, cannonball is a far more accurate description of my here-I-am, look-at-me ways than is a diminuitive swan dive. I don’t need to look at a strutting football player to understand pride. I’m a part of the problem. All I need to do is look in the mirror.
“If you’ve got it, flaunt it” was a catchphrase during my teenage years. I began reading the Bible daily during that time as well, but I must have missed the scriptural admonitions against pride. It never occurred to me to examine my life for the presence of vanity in any of its varied forms.
And I’ve paid a price. I’m betting, in one way or another, you have too.
Lent is a perfect time to attend to the hunger for humility. That’s exactly what I plan to do. And I’d love to have you join me.
So I’m inviting you for a season of (mostly) short reflections on the forgotten virtue of humility and its corresponding vice, the problem of pride. Every few days I’ll be sharing gleanings that include video clips, music, scripture and quotes from novelists, spiritual writers and poets who can help us recover the heart of a child by exposing the pitfalls of pride and by elevating humility’s hidden beauty.
If you’re in, just place your email address in the Follow Sparrowfare box on this page and you’ll receive new posts in your inbox. Then share with friends who might be feeling the same counter-cultural desire to understand humility a little better.
Let’s do this together.
Because all the world may be a stage, but that doesn’t mean we have to strut.
Reads and Other Seeds
Counteracting the Big Me with Two Frogs and a Toad, a reflection on two favorite children’s books, was inspired by the opening chapter of The Road to Character.
Maria Popova’s The Road to Character: David Brooks on the Art of Stumbling, “Résumé Virtues” vs. “Eulogy Virtues,” and the Humility Code of Living a Meaningful Life at Brain Pickings is a rich review and a humility-desire booster.
Three hundred years old and heart-piercingly relevant. We cannot gain true humility without the grace of the humble Christ. To deepen my prayer life, I keep returning to Meditations for Lent, a collection of spiritual writings by a master, French Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bousset.
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