Character, Not Characters by Monsignor Ferrarese

Recently I had a chance to meet and speak with a journalist I admire very much. His name is David Brooks. He is an op-ed writer for the New York Times. He visited a discussion group of priests that I belong to. We were set to discuss his book “The Road to Character” and our discussion leader, Fr. Robert Lauder, managed to get him to come to our small group (about 10 of us).

I am a big fan of his book. Our own Flannery O‘Connor Book Club here in the parish read and discussed it earlier this year. The central theme of the book is that there are two kinds of virtues: what Brooks called ‘Resume Virtues’ and ‘Eulogy Virtues’.

As the accurate and descriptive names suggest one set of virtues are those that you will find on a resume: efficiency, knowledge of the components of a job, skills acquired e.g. computer skills, etc. The others are the virtues that one depends upon as human beings. These are extolled typically when one dies and is being praised: loyalty, compassion, humility. He argues that these are the most important virtues because they build character, and the greatness of a person is not based on computer skills but on his or her ability to be humble and loyal, courageous and persevering.

Academic programs cannot teach Eulogy Virtues. Religion and Family can and do. So that the development of one’s deepest humanity is the true life project for all of us.

Brooks then devotes the rest of the book to giving examples of great people who developed these types of virtue to an extraordinary extent: Augustine, Dorothy Day, etc. Some are famous and some not as well known. One of the virtues most mentioned and described by him is the virtue of humility. All of the people cited did things in a quiet and self-effacing way. They struggled against their own internal demons and tried in small but effective ways to make life better for others. They did not make themselves the centers of the universe nor did they call attention to their contributions. They were content to have the good done for society and let the credit go where it may. This is the opposite of what we call, colloquially, ‘characters’, that is people who call attention to themselves. When we come across someone who is eccentric and puts himself or herself in the center of things, we say that he or she is a real ‘character’. A person of character is the opposite of someone who is a character. They never place themselves at the center of things but rather are content to do good quietly.

Brooks contrasted this with the “me” generation and its concentration on the self, its allergy to criticism, its need to be singled out constantly, its false concept of equality that made the striving for greatness a solitary quest that must be credited to everyone and therefore to no one.

One sees this in the trend against comparative grades in school and in sporting associations that give trophies to everyone, no matter their skill or achievements. In both these tendencies there is the false horror of making anyone feel bad. So you do not reward the high achievers in academic or sporting endeavors so that no one may ‘feel bad’. In all the examples cited by Brooks, there was a willing acceptance of correction and a humble appreciation of the talents of others. Why should the high marks of my classmate or the trophy given to the highest scorer in a sport be a problem for me? Am I that weak and fragile that anything said about my classmate or fellow player in praise becomes for me a cause for dejection? Only if we exalt the ego and make it an ultimate concern do we condemn our institutions to the stagnation of feigned equality based on the ‘rights’ of all.

I have often thought: “What would be one of the defining characteristics of being in heaven?” Or to put it another way: “How do I know that I am ready for Heaven?” Following the line of reasoning that I have tried to show, the answer would be: when I can see everyone but me honored and glorified and still be filled with joy for them and for the wisdom of God. This kind of humility, if correctly understood, gives us an immense type of wisdom and a delightful sort of freedom so as to take away all fears (for ourselves and our rights and our privileges and our needs).

This is the perfect love that St. John the Evangelist tells us casts out fear.

It is also the state of the redeemed as they stand before God.

This is Heaven.

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