Fairly often, I think of writing a note to someone whose work I admire, who has brought me pleasure or made me think. But I never do. By now, many of those who I’ve thought of thanking are long gone – Cary Grant, Milt Jackson, Phillip Larkin.
I don’t send the note because there is something a little embarrassing or even juvenile about the notion of a fan letter. More to the point, there’s also the fear that one may be thought to be trolling for a response, even hoping to become an unwanted pen pal. And behind that is the conviction that Mr. or Ms. Big hardly need to hear from some gushing nobody from nowhere.
But this is just another form of egotism. Fear of not being noticed is only the reverse of wanting to be lionized. Realistically, who doesn’t want to get a note of appreciation? When I was an editorial writer, I got plenty of hate mail. A friendly note was always welcome.
I boarded this train of thought when I heard David Brooks on the NewsHour and Charlie Rose flogging his latest book, “The Road to Character.” It has more than a little to do with ego and ambition, caring and selflessness. And the author can be assumed to be a fine guide to anything that catches his fancy.
It becomes clearer with every passing year that Brooks is a national treasure. In an era when anything touching on public life, politics, policy, including newspaper opinion writing, resembles a blood sport, Brooks is refreshingly calm, witty, studious, considered and decent. He’s that rare thing, a mensch. He is The New York Times’ idea of a conservative and a conservative’s idea of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. For my part, anyone who counts Alexander Hamilton as his favorite Founding Father is A-OK.
In addition to trying to make rational sense of current events, Brooks has written two books of what I would call comic sociology or perhaps satiric demography – “Bobos in Paradise” and “On Paradise Road” – that hold up a funhouse mirror to our national character. As he’s gotten older, Brooks has gotten a bit less high-spirited, a bit more serious, taking on big questions. He mined the latest neurological and social science research in “The Social Animal” to consider how best to live as a sentient being – how to raise children, navigate coming of age, make a place in the world, mature and survive the vicissitudes of aging.
In his new book, he examines the biographies of a dozen worthies to discuss a topic often left to philosophers and theologians – what is the good life? Not just a life well-lived, but a life lived for good. From his discussion, I know that his exemplars include two figures I would want to write thank you notes to, if they were around – George C. Marshall, named as the greatest man they ever met by people as disparate as Churchill and Orson Welles, and Michel de Montaigne, a thoroughly loveable character who invented a literary genre, the personal essay.
Brooks’ pantheon also includes Dorothy Day, Dr. Johnson, Eisenhower, Lincoln, Francis Perkins, Bayard Rustin, St. Augustine, and George Eliot. A mixed bag, but his theme is achieving transcendence and all of his models, he says, were afflicted by flaws or sins. Most began as non-entities and would have stayed that way if they hadn’t overcome their worser natures. The seemingly amiable Ike seethed with anger that he learned to manage. “With malice toward none” Lincoln fought against hatred in himself. Marshall was able to subdue consuming personal ambition in service of selfless dedication to something larger. Almost all suffered from ego – the bane of human existence. Character is not being perfect, but often demands finding a way to give up one’s cherished imperfections.
Brook, always clever, has hung his book on the distinction between résumé virtues and epitaph virtues. He argues that our culture has overvalued résumé virtues – good grades, good job, good pay, and constantly up the ladder to more, to better, to best. But what we really know, in our heart of hearts, is that the epitaph virtues are better – for ourselves and for others. Loving kindness, caring, commitment to something beyond ourselves, empathy, decency, forgiveness, honor, sacrifice.
To pursue résumé virtues, one must be constantly striving, promoting the self. To pursue epitaph virtues, one must paradoxically give rather than get, think of others rather than oneself, surrender rather than win. With rather touching candor, Brooks ruefully admits he has always been good at the résumé virtues and has succeed beyond his expectations, but that he believes he has fallen short on the epitaph virtues and feels the lack.
This may be the form a mid-life crisis takes in a hugely successful, Jewish, public intellectual. Abraham Maslow might suggest worrying about the epitaph virtues comes fairly far up the needs hierarchy. “Grub first, then ethics,” says Brecht. Still, I’m sure Brooks is onto something, and I look forward to reading his book. No one can know if he’s right about his own shortcomings, but I suspect that like many habitual strivers he may be a trifle hard on himself.
Yeats famously said one had to “choose perfection of the life or of the work.” But Brooks denies the desire for a more soulful life is a zero sum game. Among men of his snarky profession, Brooks already qualifies as a prince, and I for one am not sure I want a sadder, but wiser David Brooks. To me, as I’m sure to many another grateful readers, he already seems well worth eulogizing. But not yet. Lighten up, live long and prosper.