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The road to character

Call it my Lego epiphany. For many months my 10-year-old son has been building Lego ships. Then one day he started to hit me with questions about hulls, torpedoes and naval maneuvers like "crossing the T." Then he asked me about the Battle of the Denmark Strait and other World War II battles. And suddenly, there we were, talking about courage, loyalty and sacrifice.

As I studied some history with him, I found it unimaginable to describe the heroics of the British pilots and seamen who sunk the mighty German Bismarck May 27, 1941, without resorting to a distinctly moral vocabulary of the inner life. My son gets it. He hungers for moments to go deeper than Legos: to study character.

And yet, as New York Times columnist and political commentator David Brooks proposes in his newly released The Road to Character, we have made a de facto decision as a culture to consign "eulogy virtues" to the dustbin, together with categories like sin, grace, redemption, vice and suffering.

Brooks' epiphany came in his driveway a few years ago. He happened upon a radio rebroadcast of "Command Performance" from V-J Day (Aug. 15, 1945), a program broadcast to the U.S. troops. One might anticipate some on-air chest-thumping on that pivotal day. Instead, Brooks found an austerity-of-ego inconceivable in our selfie age. "Today, though," said Bing Crosby on the program, "our deep-down feeling is one of humility." Another added, "I hope that in victory we are more grateful than proud."

We live in a tension between "Adam I" and "Adam II," Brooks explains, borrowing the terms from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik's 1965 "Lonely Man of Faith." "Majestic" Adam I wants to "build, create, produce and discover things," while "humble" and "internal" Adam II "wants to embody certain moral qualities" and have a "quiet but solid sense of right and wrong". "Adam I's motto is 'success,'" writes Brooks, while "Adam II experiences life as a moral drama. His motto is 'Charity, love and redemption.'"

In what Brooks calls the age of the "big me," we ignore Adam II and opt instead for the "resume virtues" beloved by Adam I. We under-cultivate our interior life and avoid reflecting upon our sins and flaws as "crooked timber." Without the unseen and quiet daily habits that build Adam II, Brooks asserts, it is only a matter of time before we collapse from within and meet our Watergate moment.

Raising children in the toxic culture of "me, me, me," I found "The Road to Character" to be a winsome 275-page examination of conscience and challenge to reclaim the "moral ecology" that goes far deeper than the politics, economics or other system of thought. It is so easy - and arguably slothful - to hover at the flashy level of Legos and battles and Adam I and forego our own cultivation of Adam II, not to mention our need to invite others into that more profound conversation.

"I was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness," admits Brooks. "I wrote this book not sure I could follow the road to character, but I wanted at least to know what the road looks like and how other people have trodden it." "The Road to Character" became for Brooks something of a second chance, a journey to "save his soul," as he puts it.

Through 10 biographical sketches - including St. Augustine, Frances Perkins, A. Philip Randolph, Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall and Dorothy Day - Brooks takes us on a journey of the inner life. Forget the nonsense about "follow your passion" and "build on your strength." We glimpse how these individuals instead engage in a lifelong confrontation with what Brooks call their unique "core sin."

For the Catholics he profiles, faith imbues and orders their inner lives. Their struggles both humanize and ennoble our own - even as our pursuit of "resume virtues" at the expense of our inner life is revealed as the shortsighted escapade that it is.

"We live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career," writes Brooks, "but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to cultivate the inner life." Brooks breaks through the "shale" of majestic Adam I and hits the "bedrock" of quiet Adam II.

First, read it. Then, if you have one family member, friend or colleague in your life with whom you've never really talked "eulogy virtues" or the life of Adam II, you could do far worse than to send him or her a copy.

A road - a new horizon - may open in your friendship. And you just might have the privilege of moving from Legos to what matters most.

Johnson, a husband and father of five, is Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde's special assistant for evangelization and media. He can be reached on Twitter @Soren_t.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015