IT WAS THE USUAL KIND OF PARTY WHERE FRIENDS gather together for a BBQ and some good times. The host found me in her living room scanning the various books in her shelves beside the fireplace. There were the familiar titles of history, philosophy, economics, and politics. When I complemented her on her selection, she remarked, “They are actually from my university days and I treasure them. But the truth is I haven’t read them since. There’s just no time.”

It’s a common tale – one heard more frequently as life piles on responsibility after responsibility.

There was a time when the idea of thinking deeply was a worthy pursuit. It equated the reader (or writer) with life’s more profound treasures and mysteries and supposedly enriched the life with things of historic importance. But in a world of 140 characters, 24/7 news coverage, extensive work hours, taking kids to their games, and assuming numerous domestic duties, pursuing the “deep” option has become something of an art.

David Brooks, the well-known New York Times columnist, recently lamented that modern life, with its emphasis on materialism and professional achievements, has left us little time for cultivating the kinds of qualities that will actually be discussed at our funerals – lover of life, great sense of humour, dedicated to family, honesty, generous, a belief in integrity, to name a few. In acknowledging the pressures of living, he nevertheless concluded that acquiring a character of depth was still possible if people chose to pursue it. “Those things that we admire most – honesty, humility, self-control, courage and compassion – those things take some time and they accumulate slowly,” he writes.

To assist us in such a pursuit, Brooks outlined five qualities that should be enhanced in our personal, professional, and public lives that can lead to depth of character.

  1. Love – Instead of some kind of transient affection or something just based on need, “we should develop love for a cause, transformational love for another person, even God. It ‘de-centers’ the self.” In profound fashion, he goes on to conclude that, “a person in love finds the centre of himself is outside himself.” That ability to get beyond ourselves can take us into deeper waters of meaning and possibility.
  2. Suffering – Brooks tells of our penchant for looking forward and our desire for happiness, which is endemic and a natural part of human nature. “But when people look backward at the things that made them who they are, they usually don’t talk about moments when they were happy. They usually talk about moments of suffering or healing. So we plan for happiness, but we’re formed by suffering.” The truth in that last statement is so obvious as to be irrefutable. The great writings, poems, musical and art pieces, all reflect this reality.
  3. Internal Struggle – “Those who have depth are aware that while they have great strength, great dignity, they also have great weakness. And they are engaged in an internal struggle with themselves.” Those things that are often the most valued in life take the hardest work to acquire or achieve. Often our greatest enemy to being successful is in ourselves.
  4. Obedience – we live in a world that constantly beckons us to look inward, deep inside ourselves, for our passion. But those people we most admire, those that have made a difference in their world, have responded to callings of causes outside of themselves. And they obey that cause because it speaks to the essence of their being and their desire to matter in this short life.
  5. Acceptance – Brooks talks about “belonging to some sort of human transcendent community.” There are those people who live for others, for causes outside of themselves, and the very arc of their lives is a thing of great meaning and inspiration to us. Then we find, as we begin focusing on the great needs of humanity, or the secrets of character, that we are part of group of people who better the world every day through their dedicated efforts. To feel that sense of belonging is vital to our own personal fulfillment.

Our choices determine our character – it has ever been so. The deeper, the more arduous the choice, the more our inner selves develop a nobility that calls to the most meaningful things of life. The frantic pace of our modern era often makes such a narrative difficult to achieve. But when our life is over, for most of us at least, we will want to be remembered for the riches of our character than the amount of money in our account; for our capacity to love greatly as opposed to just being loved; for our belief in a better world and not merely the one we were offered; and for our decision to throw our weight behind the great cause of humanity as opposed to merely living on its hectic terms.