David Brooks on Character: Journey to the Unexamined

By Abby SkeansIn his newest book, The Road to Character, David Brooks pulls back the curtain and invites readers to indulge in that one activity which our human nature instinctively abhors, self-criticism. In his winsome and raw tone, Brooks guides readers into a space where he has led us many times before in his columns which have appeared twice a week for the past decade -- that field of thoughtfulness. This place is an intellectual “wide open space” where we are not forcefed conclusions or provided choice pathways to a guaranteed end; instead, Brooks always invites us to wrestle with that famous admonition -- the unexamined life is not worth living.The themes and vernacular will feel like an old friend to those who situate themselves within the Judeo-Christian tradition and especially easy for those who hold to Reformed theology. Brooks prizes grace and allows her tendency to make us more thoughtful family members, more grateful individuals, and more conscious citizens to be an aim that we should strive for.Brooks offers an irreligious description of grace -- he suggests that is it being subsumed by a sense of beauty that we don’t deserve -- and that a graceful life is living in such a way that we are attempting to be worthy of what we’re given. He illustrates the stark contrast of a life that is captured by grace and one that is not by painting two theoretical figures, the two Adams. Based on Biblical language, the first Adam focuses on what Brooks terms resume virtues, while the second Adam strives after eulogy virtues. The first Adam is consumed with his importance in the present, while the second Adam evaluates his daily activities in the context of building a life well lived.Readers, especially millennials, may be tempted to see Brooks’ work as a new guidebook for life -- a reminder of how to find true meaning. However, Brooks does not want that. Indeed, he cautioned at a recent public conversation hosted by The Trinity Forum in Washington, D.C. that he is certain that this book will not and cannot change a life. To have one’s life changed is in fact much more complicated than reading a book over a Saturday morning latte. Becoming the second Adam, will take just that: becoming. It will be a journey and a process toward introspection which requires the daily discipline of facing our increasingly narcissistic tendencies and cultural shaping to confront the true inner self.Brooks suggests that hallmarks of the journey toward the second Adam may necessarily involve suffering, humility, generosity of spirit, and intellectual honesty. Humility, a radical self awareness from a distance, is often produced by suffering which reminds us that we’re not who we thought we were. This journey can be worked out tactically through a myriad of activities (journaling, reading religious texts, joining discussion and reading groups) but Brooks doesn’t pretend to be able to prescribe specific disciplines -- gratefully, he only harkens us to begin the journey.In the end, the Beatles and Brooks agree that love is all you need. Death is inevitable in the journey from the first Adam to the second. And the reward in this death is tranquility and peace which leads to love. Brooks beautifully reminds us that love improves us morally, opens the vulnerable parts of our inner being, eliminates the boundaries between giving and receiving, and allows us to embrace the poetic rhythm of life. And as find ourselves evolving through self-criticism, Brooks leaves us with a guiding question to keep us presently and existentially on course, “who loves me more than I deserve?” Answer this and you will likely find yourself captured by grace and on the road to character.