Critiquing the “True Self” Within
Brooks in the first chapter already began to critique the common contemporary notion of “the true self” within.
As Ellen DeGeneres put it in a 2009 commencement address, “My advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine.” Celebrity chef Mario Batali advised graduates to follow “your own truth, expressed consistently by you.” Anna Quindlen urged another audience to have the courage to “honor your character, your intellect, your inclinations, and, yes, your soul by listening to its clean clear voice instead of following the muddied messages of a timid world.”
In her mega-selling book Eat, Pray, Love (I am the only man ever to finish this book), Elizabeth Gilbert wrote that God manifests himself through “my own voice from within my own self…. God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are.” 6
Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (p. 7). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Brooks tells her story well starting with the famous Triangle Factory Fire. The point he wants to make with her life is this.
Today, commencement speakers tell graduates to follow their passion, to trust their feelings, to reflect and find their purpose in life. The assumption behind these clichés is that when you are figuring out how to lead your life, the most important answers are found deep inside yourself. When you are young and just setting out into adulthood, you should, by this way of thinking, sit down and take some time to discover yourself, to define what is really important to you, what your priorities are, what arouses your deepest passions. You should ask certain questions: What is the purpose of my life? What do I want from life? What are the things that I truly value, that are not done just to please or impress the people around me?
But Frances Perkins found her purpose in life using a different method, one that was more common in past eras. In this method, you don’t ask, What do I want from life? You ask a different set of questions: What does life want from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do?
In this scheme of things we don’t create our lives; we are summoned by life. The important answers are not found inside, they are found outside. This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded. This perspective begins with an awareness that the world existed long before you and will last long after you, and that in the brief span of your life you have been thrown by fate, by history, by chance, by evolution, or by God into a specific place with specific problems and needs. Your job is to figure certain things out: What does this environment need in order to be made whole? What is it that needs repair? What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed? As the novelist Frederick Buechner put it, “At what points do my talents and deep gladness meet the world’s deep need?”
Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (pp. 21-22). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Brooks will talk some about Victor Frankl and then do a more in depth biography of Francis Perkins. As I said I didn’t know much about her but her life story is quite fascinating.
Summoned by “Life”
The point in the above quote is clear, and one that many who have lived more than a couple of decades know. Life takes unexpected turns and you often wind up in places and doing things you never expected.
One thing we should note is that this is in many ways a product of our times and our culture. For centuries people lived very predictable lives. The son did the work of a father, women got married and did the work of family and home. Peasants begat peasants and most people lived short, hard lives.
I think Brooks’ main point of the chapter is good, right and important. The idea promulgated on most of today’s young is doing them a disservice. For most of them their circumstances, rather than the passions they fell at a particular point in time, like high school or college graduation will likely dictate more about their future lives than whatever they imagine in the moment or feel is right.
It also exposes this quasi-mystical imagined authentic, autonomous or “true self” deep within to some rational scrutiny. This notion is really a quasi religious idea based on some select experiences. To me it’s kind of like my experience as a child swimming at the Jersey shore. I’d be out there in the water swimming, having a good time, imagining that I somehow was the agent determining my location by my bobbings and strokes only to discover when I looked to the shore for my mother that the current had been pushing me along far more than any intentional movement on my part. Now I might imagine that the current is my “true self”, mysteriously guiding me down the shoreline while it was actually a far stronger force than I was, something not at all internal to me but rather moving me in ways I was simply not conscious of. If I really wanted to know what was happening to me what I needed was an external point of reference, not something subject to my imagined self. That point of reference indicated that in fact I was a small boy being moved by very large and powerful current that determined where I would go in ways so subtle and quiet I couldn’t perceive it.
We of course see these currents all the time. It is what Brooks is pointing out in the common assumptions of a generation moved along by the powerful suggestions of movies and celebrities all the while thinking “I’m hearing my own unique, true inner voice” blind to the fact that all their friends are hearing the same message, also imagining it’s some mystical, internal compass through which the universe guides them to “true north”.
The point he makes with Perkins (at least initially in the chapter) is that via her experience with the Triangle Factory Fire she winds up becoming an activist and a labor leader, something that she as a teenage girl or a young adult could not have fathomed or imagined.
What Moves History?
Now of course because Brooks is writing to a secular audience he’s got to keep within the secular box. “Chance, fate, God, evolution, history…” are all candidates to answer the question “how did I get here and what is shaping my future beyond my own choices?” I should probably read Brooks’ previous book The Social Animal to see how he processes the internal question. One of the real challenges we have today is to what degree we as individuals have what we experience as freedom of choice, but that’s too large of a topic for this right now. Brooks wants to challenge the imagined true compass within that helps the autonomous, authentic individual design their life and chart their course by noting that all of us are embedded within a context that often has a great deal more to do with what we do and the contributions we make than this imagined individual voice within. He doesn’t try to tell us what moves history, he only notes that history moves us.
The Myth of the Epic Self
The other day I wanted to create a Power Point slide of self help books so I just put in “self help books” within the Amazon search box. To my surprised the first item that came up was a short, free booklet entitled “The Universe Doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You (Epic series Book 1)”.
It got my interest and it was free so I downloaded it. Basically the point of the short book was exactly what the title asserted and so the application was that we as individual should marshal whatever time, strength and opportunities we have to “make a difference” in the world. In book 1 he doesn’t suggest what kind of difference we should make. Lately individuals with assault rifles have been making differences. He doesn’t say what is good or bad. I’ll likely not read the rest of the series, but you get my point.
Implicit in Brooks’ story of Francis Perkins is I think some of the common subtext between him and the free self-help book. Significance is measured by splash. Brooks would of course advocate a more positive splash, like becoming a the Secretary of Labor for FDR’s whole administration and helping to shape labor policy for a generation, but the measure is large.
This assumption is deep within our culture. The justification for doing “small things”, like being a parent is usually made by raising someone who did large things, like Dwight Eisenhower as we’ll see in the next chapter. The measure of one’s worth is how many degrees of separation you are removed from someone who your age considers to be significant.
I’m sure Brooks would counter my assertion by saying that being a significant person in the life of someone who isn’t seen as being a significant person is important too, but the power of illustration almost always shifts to the famous, important people. In a sense, contra the point he made in chapter 1, fame seems to have value that the middle school girls say it does. We’re not reading stories about little people. Why not? Because those biographies don’t tend to sell, or usually get written.
How The Secular Box Shapes our Value Assessment
Brooks must locate the value of these “eulogy virtues” within an appreciable benefit of other lives in the world today.
Because the book is so massive I’m almost always reading/listening to some of Charles Taylor’s massive work A Secular Age. One piece of this huge transition to the exclusive humanism is the need to locate all goods within history.
When Brooks opens the chapter with the Triangle Factory Fire we hear gripping stories of men and women throwing themselves from the burning building. The assumption is that these men and women were low status, uneducated, lower skilled workers who died young in the fire. We see them through the eyes of Francis Perkins. We are invited to imagine ourselves vicariously through her experience and the lesson of the chapter is conveyed through us imagining ourselves as encountering vocation, meaning and purpose by the great things that life summoned us to.
When I read this sort of thing I always ask “what about the woman who died tragically and young in the fire? Did she not have purpose?”
Well maybe she might because she died in a famous fire. How about the child who got measles and died quietly in the city about the same time? No story is written about this child. We don’t know the name of this child. This child was “summoned by life” or perhaps death but within history does this child’s life have any meaning, purpose or vocation?
When Jesus’ disciples tried to shoo away the children Jesus rebuked his disciples so that the children could come to him. We read this as a nice story in the Bible but we often fail to grasp its significance. Jesus would set into motion a movement that would change history especially for children.
Why should children matter? Why do “black lives matter”? Why do the lives of the people buried in the Great Wall of China matter? Who do they matter to? They matter to God. It is God who gives the lives of children, the unimportant, the small and other anonymous people meaning.
We might imagine that these people whose names and stories we will never know don’t matter beyond their slim contribution to demographics that moved history or sociology of their day. I say that they are summoned, not simply by life, but by God. Brooks is right that they are not simply moved from the inside, the external currents are usually far more determinative.
Christianity would say that these currents are not mechanical or random but rather part of the providential work of an author in history. I understand why in our secular age we have decided that asserting such an author in public is problematic. It is the same reason that on one hand someone can get very upset if you assert that an all loving, all powerful God somehow bears some responsibility for history when history is full of pain, injustice and strife while they have no problem at all saying that the same painful, unjust history is simply the product of random chance.
On one hand I can understand this. If a car runs over a loved one it is a tragedy. If this accident occurred because of an icy road or a fluke mechanical failure I will feel badly but if it happened because of a negligent or drunk driver I’ll be angry. “Someone is to BLAME!” But here we are, again, asking the question of agency. Were they drunk because history gave them a bad childhood or a genetic weakness to alcohol? The tragedy may be significant to me but it won’t be significant to the world beyond the relational circles of the victim and it certainly won’t have meaning beyond recorded life on this planet after the sun runs out of fuel.
Brooks is in some ways stuck in the same “fame” trap as the culture he laments. Are eulogies remembered longer than résumés? Are they more valuable? This assertion is the premise of the book but making this case will in fact be more difficult. It feels easier because we have an implicit assumption left over from Christianity that people, whether they be important, famous or not, matter, yet apart from God knowing all of the unremembered people why should they?
It seems obvious that the lifetime contribution of Francis Perkins was a very positive and beneficial thing for millions of anonymous American workers. Wasn’t she able to achieve this through her résumé? This book can’t really help us see that the lives she saved had any more value than the lives she was unable to save through the accident of her timing in history.
And you’ll probably read this over and over again to the degree that I’m able to keep blogging as I go through the book.
- I enjoyed the chapter, learning about Perkins and the book.
- It feels unfair to knock Brooks on having to write for a secular audience. This is an obvious and common accommodation in our cultures, for his vocation and for his audience.
- The main point he makes in this chapter is dead on. The myth of the “true inner compass” deserves to be debunked. We are creatures who live in context and most often our vocations find us, rather than the other way around. “Following your passions” will often leave you simply following the herd in the passions designed for you by the American market and its framing lights.
- Vocation has everything to do with importance and meaning and the secular box moves us to often value the “fame” quotient he’s decrying.
- We implicitly imaging ourselves self-constructing the meaning of our lives as judges by significance communicated to us by our current audience. In this way “importance” is usually reserved for people who ironically excel in the résumé virtues. This in a sense undermines his effort. Eulogy virtues of nice, but can we say they are significant unless someone also has the résumé so that we care?