Dorothy Day, “The Road to Character” Chapter 4


Dorothy Day

I didn’t know much about Dorothy Day before reading this chapter. I knew she was involved in the Roman Catholic workers movement and that Brooks in the past as often mentioned her as one of his heroes. I can’t evaluate his telling of her story because his is the only telling I know.

Day seems to be one of these outliers that whose turn to Christianity seems to defy the myth of progress and liberation. As a young woman she lived a wild and dissolute life eventually converting to Catholicism and becoming something of a modern monastic. She would become an important revolutionary in the early 20th century sense of the word. She was counter-cultural before that became fashionable turning to criticize the 1960s expressions that might have aspired to claim her mantle.

The word “counterculture” was used a lot in the late 1960s, but Day was living according to a true counterculture, a culture that stood athwart not only the values of the mainstream culture of the day— the commercialism, the worship of success— but also against the values of the Woodstock counterculture the media was prone to celebrate— the antinomianism, the intense focus on the liberated individual and “doing your own thing.” The Woodstock counterculture seemed, superficially, to rebel against mainstream values, but as the ensuing decades have demonstrated, it was just a flipside version of the culture of the Big Me. Both capitalism and Woodstock were about the liberation of self, the expression of self. In commercial society you expressed self by shopping and building a “lifestyle.” In Woodstock culture you expressed self by casting off restraint and celebrating yourself. The bourgeois culture of commerce could merge with the bohemian culture of the 1960s precisely because both favored individual liberation, both encouraged people to measure their lives by how they were able to achieve self-gratification.

Day’s life, by contrast, was about the surrender of self and ultimately the transcendence of self. Toward the end of her life she would occasionally appear on television talk shows. There is a simplicity and directness to her presence on these shows, and great self-possession. Through The Long Loneliness and her other writings she practiced a sort of public confession, which has attracted people ever since. She was open about her interior life, as Frances Perkins and Dwight Eisenhower never were. She was the opposite of reticent.

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (pp. 102-103). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


In each chapter Brooks uses the biography to highlight the road to character, and in this case it’s suffering.

When most people think about the future, they dream up ways they might live happier lives. But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the crucial events that formed them, they don’t usually talk about happiness. It is usually the ordeals that seem most significant. Most people shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.

Day was unusual, maybe even perverse, in that she sometimes seemed to seek out suffering as a road to depth. She probably observed, as we all do, that people we call deep have almost always endured a season of suffering, or several such seasons. But she seemed to seek out those seasons, and to avoid some of the normal pleasures of life that would have brought simple earthly happiness. She often sought out occasions for moral heroism, occasions to serve others in acts of enduring hardship.

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (p. 93). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Here is of course where our project gets weird. “I want to have character so I need to suffer.” OK, sparky, what’s next then?

John Piper’s line “don’t waste your suffering” is a good one. You likely won’t develop character without suffering, yet suffering doesn’t always produce character. Sometimes it produces despair, bitterness or nihilism. In any case, it isn’t the thing you look for, but it is something you decide not to avoid sometimes. It often is a consequence of commitment and love.

In his speeches, his articles and this book Brooks mine’s Paul Tillich here.

The first big thing suffering does is it drags you deeper into yourself. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routine busyness of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The pain involved in, say, composing a great piece of music or the grief of having lost a loved one smashes through a floor they thought was the bottom floor of their soul, revealing a cavity below, and then it smashes through that floor, revealing another cavity, and so on and so on. The person in pain descends to unknown ground.

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (p. 94). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

What is Character Good For? 

So in a way we are back to the main question of the book. OK, we understand Adam I and Adam II and we see how Adam I needs Adam II to actually achieve. We also see that the world needs and values Adam II’s eulogy virtues, but is there a good beyond this world that finally makes sense of suffering and character. This haunts Brooks in Day.

She certainly never achieved complete spiritual tranquillity and self-satisfaction. On the day she died, there was a card inserted into the final page of her journal, inscribed with a prayer of penance from Saint Ephraim the Syrian that begins, “O Lord and master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faintheartedness, lust of power and idle talk. But give to thy servant rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love.”

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (p. 103). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

What is the final payoff of character? Is the development of character wasted by death?

I remember my grandfather spending time enjoying reading Bavinck and Kuyper in his retirement home. He already had some dementia. By paring down their possessions for their two room he was forced to whittle his pastoral/theological library down to a small bookshelf and on it he kept these large, Dutch theological volumes. I used to wonder “why is he reading this? How much of it can he still retain even if he can’t seem to remember he has two rooms instead of three? What’s the point when it seems clear he doesn’t have much life left? Is it just enjoyment?

Can we in our secular box appreciate, imagine or assert any good beyond flourishing as we value it? This is a vital piece of the narrative of our secular age as seen by Charles Taylor.

The highest goals had to be brought down into the human realm, as it were, ends beyond human flourishing had to fade from view, even in the outlook of many of the devout, in order that the enhanced human moral powers could meet them half-way, and establish a kind of equilibrium between our goals and our moral abilities. The third anthropocentric shift I described above, the dispelling of mystery, shows the same double movement in a connected domain. On one hand, what is to be understood is now defined fined in relation to purely human goals: we have to see how human life can be organized so as to bring about fulfillment and happiness. At the same time, we seem to have come into greatly increased cognitive powers, thanks to the methods of the new sciences. Between these two movements, the realm of mystery shrinks, even approaches proaches zero.

Charles Taylor. A Secular Age (p. 261). Kindle Edition.

So while we value Dorothy Day as someone who exhibited mercy and heroic sacrifice in caring for the working poor, was she also simply a noble fool for doing so in a way that caused her suffering? Surely she could have used a good therapist to engage her messiah complex. Couldn’t we have optimized her life and her witness by helping her to be a less sacrificial helper? But if we would have done so, would this have also diminished the wonder that she was and it was precisely this wonder that helped her to become the kind of moral exemplar to inspire others to her cause.

The secular box itself tends to drive us to make character instrumental rather.

A Christian narrative imagines Dorothy Day in the light of Paul in Colossians.

Colossians 1:24–29 (NET)

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my physical body—for the sake of his body, the church—what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. 25 I became a servant of the church according to the stewardship from God—given to me for you—in order to complete the word of God, 26 that is, the mystery that has been kept hidden from ages and generations, but has now been revealed to his saints. 27 God wanted to make known to them the glorious riches of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 We proclaim him by instructing and teaching all people with all wisdom so that we may present every person mature in Christ. 29 Toward this goal I also labor, struggling according to his power that powerfully works in me.

The Christian narrative imagines Day’s path is not ended by death and this additional space leaves room for suffering and glory that has benefits outside of the secular box.

Suffering and Holiness

Brooks almost gets there in this lovely passage.

The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t mean that in a purely religious sense. I mean seeing the pain as part of a moral narrative and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred, some act of sacrificial service that will put oneself in fraternity with the wider community and with eternal moral demands. Parents who have lost a child start foundations; their dead child touches the lives of people they never met. Suffering simultaneously reminds us of our finitude and pushes us to see life in the widest possible connections, which is where holiness dwells.

Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that often lead to suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability and become available to healing love. They hurl themselves deeper and more gratefully into their art, loved ones, and commitments.

This way, suffering becomes a fearful gift, very different from that other gift, happiness, conventionally defined. The latter brings pleasure, but the former cultivates character.

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (pp. 95-96). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in book review and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Dorothy Day, “The Road to Character” Chapter 4

  1. Phil Runkel says:

    Of the many books written by and about Day, I’d recommend her diaries and selected letters (edited by Robert Ellsberg), her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, the biography by Jim Forest, and the oral history by Rosalie Riegle. Although Day was not without her flaws (as she was the first to admit), I don’t think a messiah complex was one of them. Marquette University
    has held her papers since 1962, and inquiries and visits are welcome. See Please note that the photo is by Vivian Cherry, and is copyrighted. It was taken in 1955.

    • PaulVK says:

      Thank you so much for your incredibly helpful comment. I’ll change the picture too. It’s an amazing photograph and I certainly would not want to take anything from the photographer by violating her copyright. I’ll use the one in Wikipedia that says its in public domain. Thanks again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s