Thesis 10 of The Humility Code (and the Scales of the Universe)

As Bryan alluded to in the most recent weekender, David Brooks’ new book The Road […]

David Zahl / 4.23.15


As Bryan alluded to in the most recent weekender, David Brooks’ new book The Road to Character hit shelves last week and has been lighting up our social media feeds, as the NY Times columnist tends to do whenever he gets into less topical territory. While the volume itself makes its way to our mailbox, a couple of reviews and write-ups are too tasty not to mention. Brooks has gone on record to state that, “my book is not a religious book. It uses religious categories … and I do that because I think the public square needs to have these words reintroduced, and frankly, in a non-sectarian manner.” In other words, those looking for an apology for faith, or Christianity specifically, will be disappointed. Which makes sense, since Brooks doesn’t claim to be religious himself. But those who find descriptions of the ‘fruit of grace’–the practical, non-mandatory, real-time outworkings and/or echoes of the Gospel–to be an apologetic in and of itself will find much to chew on, no matter their political persuasion. Perhaps reality really is singular after all.

First up is the review in The NY Times by Pico Iyer:

davidbrooks_theroadtocharacterIn “The Road to Character,” [Brooks] wriggles out of pigeonholes even more dramatically by delivering what feels like a very broad-brush, old-style commencement speech on the virtues of suffering, self-abasement and, truth be terribly told, a sense of sin… In the age of the selfie, Brooks wishes to exhort us back to a semiclassical sense of self-restraint, self-erasure and self-suspicion…

In 1950… 12 percent of high school students told the Gallup Organization they considered themselves very important; by 2005, the figure was 80 percent. In a recent survey of middle-school girls, nearly twice as many said they wanted to be personal assistant to a celebrity than president of Harvard — and the person they most wanted to dine with was Jennifer Lopez (followed by Jesus Christ and Paris Hilton). Only one of the 23 members of Eisenhower’s cabinet published a memoir, Brooks tells us, while 12 out of 30 in the Reagan administration did (and nearly all their books were advertisements for themselves).

Even as he groans under a sense of his own unworthiness, as if channeling the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Brooks writes at times like a watered-down version of the great, and compulsively aphoristic, mid-20th-­century Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel: “To nurture your Adam I career, it makes sense to cultivate your strengths. To nurture your Adam II moral core, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses.” Many of these ringing pronouncements are not exactly watertight: “Adam I aims for happiness,” we’re told, “but Adam II knows that happiness is insufficient.”

Sounds interesting, right? Very much in tune with Brooks’ remarkable defense of Alcoholics Anonymous a couple of years ago. But Iyer’s words only hint at what Michael Gerson of The Washington Post observed, contributing a guest spot to the Arizona Daily Star. Get a load of this:

I disliked portions of the book in the same way a cancer patient dislikes a CAT scan. Too much uncomfortable accuracy.

The book, fortunately, did not stop there. “We are all ultimately saved by grace,” says Brooks, right there in thesis No. 10 [of The Humility Code]. “It may come in the form of love from friends and family, in the assistance of an unexpected stranger or from God. But the message is the same. You are accepted. You don’t flail about in desperation, because hands are holding you up.”

Brooks makes this point in a nonsectarian, even nonreligious, manner. He is always careful — always courteous enough — to leave people the space to find their own way. But “grace” is an inherently theological term — a rescue that originates from the outside. The scales of the universe, in the end, come down decisively on the side of love. And we experience it, not like the argument in a book, but like the smile on the face of someone we love. Instead of finding, we are found.

This hope, it turns out, is always challenging to the prevailing culture, because it comes from outside, from elsewhere, from above.

As Will so aphoristically put it in NYC, “We do not storm the realm of grace. The realm of grace storms us”.

Elsewhere, Brain Pickings took things a step further, describing the book as “Anne Lamott with a harder edge of moral philosophy”. While Bryan’s reservations about the self-improvement undertones still apply (as well as the usual trepidation about detaching grace too wantonly from its historical basis, etc), still, it’s pretty amazing that anyone is saying this stuff on such a wide platform.

The following comes straight from the text of the book, a few points of the Humility Code mentioned above. The first item reminds me of something Nadia said in NYC about how “it’s really hard to know why the good news is so good if we aren’t clear about why the bad news is so bad”:

2. The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of our nature, and the core of that understanding is that we are flawed creatures. We have an innate tendency toward selfishness and overconfidence. We have a tendency to see ourselves as the center of the universe, as if everything revolves around us. We resolve to do one thing but end up doing the opposite. We know what is deep and important in life, but we still pursue the things that are shallow and vain. Furthermore, we overestimate our own strength and rationalize our own failures. We know less than we think we do. We give in to short-term desires even when we know we shouldn’t. We imagine that spiritual and moral needs can be solved through status and material things…

5. Pride is the central vice. Pride is a problem in the sensory apparatus. Pride blinds us to the reality of our divided nature. Pride blinds us to our own weaknesses and misleads us into thinking we are better than we are. Pride makes us more certain and closed-minded than we should be. Pride makes it hard for us to be vulnerable before those whose love we need. Pride makes coldheartedness and cruelty possible. Because of pride we try to prove we are better than those around us. Pride deludes us into thinking that we are the authors of our own lives…

10. We are all ultimately saved by grace. The struggle against weakness often has a U shape. You are living your life and then you get knocked off course — either by an overwhelming love, or by failure, illness, loss of employment, or twist of fate. The shape is advance-retreat-advance. In retreat, you admit your need and surrender your crown. You open up space that others might fill. And grace floods in. It may come in the form of love from friends and family, in the assistance of an unexpected stranger, or from God. But the message is the same. You are accepted. You don’t flail about in desperation, because hands are holding you up. You don’t have to struggle for a place, because you are embraced and accepted. You just have to accept the fact that you are accepted. Gratitude fills the soul, and with it the desire to serve and give back.