A Look at a Book is a new series I’m hosting to help keep you informed about the latest books having to do with adult development and middlescence. Why is this important? The books coming onto the market are a reflection of our struggle with the very idea of aging in America. A Look at a Book is an efficient, enjoyable way to stay informed.
“Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being —whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.” David Brooks
As a gerontologist and coach, and especially as creator of The Middlescence Factor, I find the topic of building character to be an essential piece of our development as adults. Just as adolescents face the challenges of learning about themselves through periods of growth and change, middlescents are challenged to recognize the internal shifts taking place within ourselves, to focus on our personal balance sheets and reconcile our concrete ambitions with our moral values.
I found the introduction and setup to The Road to Character to be particularly compelling and thought provoking – probably more so, in fact, than any of the book’s other sections. Brooks refers to the writings of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchick, who described two opposing sides of our nature: Adam I, and Adam II. Adam I is best understood as the external, achievement-oriented facet of our character, whereas Adam II represents the moral compass that sets our inner course. “We live in a culture that nurtures Adam I … and neglects Adam II,” says Brooks. While I agree wholeheartedly with that statement, it’s also important to recognize that the winds are shifting. As more of us have the privilege of experiencing healthy aging, we experience an increased need to challenge ourselves – and others – to heed that inner pull towards living more and more in sync with the characteristics we want to be known for. The older we get the more we want to walk our talk.
In Chapter 1, entitled, “The Big Shift,” Brooks makes the case that a shift has taken place in our culture, beginning roughly around WWII, “…from a culture of self-effacement that says “Nobody’s better than me, but I’m no better than anyone else” to a culture of self-promotion that says “Recognize my accomplishments, I’m pretty special.” In my experience, this sentiment absolutely rings true. We see it embodied when we read people’s Facebook posts about everything ranging about their latest bravery in the dentist chair to their child’s recent accomplishment on the potty chair (true stories). We have certainly increased the quality of our lives with new knowledge about health extension, wellness, and technology. But we’ve also lost some of the humility and simplicity paramount to the development of our inner lives.
The body of the book shares stories of individuals like George Eliot, Saint Augustine, Bayard Rustin, and others, in order to unearth what’s required in order to build character. Brooks furnishes examples that teach us the road to character isn’t smooth; it requires internal struggles, massive doses of self-awareness, and the ability to learn from defeat.
The Road to Character isn’t a quick or easy read. But life isn’t easy, and sometimes we forget the importance of wading patiently through the depth of an insightful piece of writing. As far as I’m concerned, the lessons and wisdom Brooks espouses are well worth the effort to unearth them. Let me know if you agree.
Have you read a book on aging, adult development or midlife you would like for me to cover in A Look at a Book? Email me at Barbara@barbarawaxman.com or post on our The Middlescence Factor Facebook Page.