While some college classrooms invite students to explore what their lives mean and religions provide an immediate answer to any bewilderment in that domain, I doubt whether many people throughout history have had the luxury to endure multi-layered curiosity about the significance of being alive. Socrates would surely see most people’s lives as not worth living because they have skipped over opportunities to examine what their life is and where it should be headed.
NYT columnist, David Brooks, in recent columns and a book, The Road to Character , has counseled us to follow his sense that many more of us need to ask questions about meaning. His thoughts are in large part confessional, revealing that he agrees with many of us who find his columns superficial and intellectually lazy. Indeed his sponge-like acceptance of social science research studies could supply a critical thinking text with ample fertile illustrations of the danger of blithe allusions to the supposed fruits of this or that “study.”
But Brooks deserves credit for being more than a political junkie with a syndicated column. He is genuinely interested in ideas and represents a form of Burkean conservatism that is a refreshing alternative to the individualistic American version. For example, in The Road to Character, Brooks distinguishes between CV Virtues and Eulogy Virtues. The former are the performance notches we dutifully record in pursuit of career success and financial enrichment. The sales of our work outputs and the awards we received for shepherding their growth would be worthy meaning markers as CV Virtues.
Eulogy Virtues are the moral record we have developed as prelude to a flattering eulogy at the ceremony heralding our demise. In that setting our honesty, humility, and kindness would designate us “meaningful.”
He argues that he and we spend too much time cultivating the former and largely ignore the latter. While I find that distinction powerfully important, it is the extended number (597) and scope of comments, responding to his May 5, 2015 Op-Ed, “What Is Your Purpose?” that stimulated this post. (Thanks to my son, Shannon, for bringing these to my attention.) The buffet of diversity, insight and emptiness available in these comments should alert us all to our collective need to join Brooks’ inclinations to ask questions of meaning for ourselves and our community.