Self-esteem is the panacea of our age. If we believe in ourselves, our beauty and uniqueness, we will lead the kind of life we want. Nothing will stop us. That’s been the dominant theory in psychology for the past three decades and it hasn’t worked. Almost 10 percent of Australians take an anti-depressant medication every day, the second highest in the world behind Iceland. That’s not the statistic of a people who are living happy and fulfilled lives. Maybe we need to work on our self-esteem. Or not.
Author and New York Times columnist David Brooks posits an interesting question in his book The Road to Character: are you living for your resume or your eulogy? He expands on a typology devised by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his essay The Lonely Man of Faith, published in the 1965. Soloveitchik wrote people have two opposed sides he called Adam I and Adam II.
“Adam I wants to conquer the world,” says Brooks. “Adam II wants to hear a calling and obey the world. Adam I favours accomplishment, Adam II favours inner consistency and strength. Adam I asks how things work; Adam II asks why are we here. Adam I’s motto is success, Adam II’s motto is love redemption and return.”
Instead of seeking external fulfilment which is not ultimately rewarding and will not lead to a eulogy we would want, Brooks says we should honour Adam II by going within and identifying our weakness from which others stem. By identifying that weakness we can confront and control it. Brooks says success in life is about pursuing external goals not taming the destructive tendencies within.
He uses women and men who achieved great things to illustrate his point. The First Supreme Allied Commander Europe, who led the Allied invasion in 1944, Dwight D Eisenhower, was burdened with angry outbursts that could’ve prevented him from achieving what he did. A defining moment in the control of his inner demon happened when he was nine. Eisenhower wanted to go trick and treating for Halloween with his brothers but his mother said he wasn’t old enough. Eisenhower, incandescent with rage, punched a tree so often and with such ferocity he cut his hands. He was sent to his room where his mother gave him what he said six decades later was some of the best advice he had been given. If you cannot control yourself, you cannot control anybody else.
Eisenhower’s external sunny and optimistic disposition contrasted with his internal anger but because he identified it he was able to conquer it. Western culture is not predisposed to looking within; it is too busy celebrating individual’s specialness, awesomeness and wonderfulness. Maybe we should look within. We’ll likely find something we don’t like but it could be the first step to creating the eulogy of someone who really is awesome.
David Brooks’s book is superlative, informative and provocative. The Road to Character isn’t a self-help book but it has the potential to help. There aren’t many non-fiction books I’ve read that made me laugh, cry and think long after I read the last page. This one did.