David Brooks is one of my favorite writers, panelists, and political commentators; his words always make me consider things from a new perspective. His latest book, The Road to Character, is about human virtues, that old-fashioned word that speaks of high moral behaviors. I want to share this passage with you, dear readers, because it touches me, and I think it will touch you, too:
“About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.
When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: it occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character.
A few years ago I realized that I wanted to be a bit more like those people. I realized that if I wanted to do that I was going to have to work harder to save my own soul. I was going to have to have the sort of moral adventures that produce that kind of goodness. I was going to have to be better at balancing my life.
It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral – whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?
We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the resume ones. But 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. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.
But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.”
If you want to add more balance to your virtues, you will need to consider how and with whom you spend your time. There are, after all, only 24 hours in each day; what you do with that time is up to you, so it’s your daily choice to decide. A few years ago, I downsized my career from a 40 hour week to a 30 hour week, and, eventually, a few years later, to a 20 hour work week.
I examined my life and saw that my grandkids were only going to be small for a short number of years, and if I intended to be more than a portrait on a wall to them, I wanted to spend more time with them playing, talking, reading to them, traveling together, and becoming a familiar figure in their lives. I also saw that a dear friend of mine, a woman named Mary, who had just retired at the age of 83 because of failing health, needed me and I wanted to be with her as often as I could before she left this earth.
It was a big decision and one that I never regretted making. I resigned from my job, took another one that allowed me to work 30 hours, and began spending time with those darling grandkids and my sweet friend. I made so many wonderful memories, it pleases me to just remember all the meaningful conversations and fun adventures of the heart that I had with them.
When Mary passed away, I was at her side on many of her final days, even though she seemed not to be consciously aware of who was in her room; I believe that she felt me there, and felt my presence and my love for her as I gently supported her departure on her own terms. Knowing that hearing is the last sense to go, I whispered into her ear, and told her how much I loved her, how much she had meant to me, and how she had done a great job as a mom, a colleague and a close friend.
When I recently attended the high school graduation of my oldest grandchild, I marveled at how this 6 foot tall young man had once been that little five year-old boy who played an imaginary game he created that we called “in the ocean” under the covers of a bedspread in a hotel where we spent a fun weekend. I recalled our morning breakfasts over tea, and how that shared ritual remains one of our favorite things today.
At the end of your life, will you be proud and happy for the memories you created with the ones you love? Or will you feel sad and regret not having taken the time to do the things that truly matter to you? It’s not too late to make a change – think about the legacy you wish to leave, and begin now to craft it. You won’t be sorry! You’ll be contented when you look back and smile at all the joy and pride you feel.