“IT IS NOT ALWAYS THE SAME THING to be a good man and a good citizen,” wrote Aristotle a long time ago about ethics and politics. Winston Churchill put a slightly different twist on it: “Good and great are seldom in the same person.”
In a lot of cases we possess the capacity to be good people and effective citizens, but we often find that one gets emphasized at the expense of the other. David Brooks penned a New York Times article a while ago that spoke about the resumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The former are the kind we put in our applications for employment and that provide for external success. The latter? Well, we already know what they are. They are deeper, more purposeful – the things that are said about people at their funerals.
We would probably find general agreement that we really aspire to the eulogy virtues, understanding their primacy. Yet our daily and professional lives tend to play out in other dimensions. Sometimes we don’t even have the luxury of choice in the matter; most systems, even most educational centres, are looking for performance qualities that shape us into better products for the market. After buying into such a mindset for key times in our careers we find we have occasionally left the better part of ourselves behind. Or as Brooks himself put it: “Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.” He provided us an insightful point here.
There is always the pressure to leave our mark on the world and it propels us forward every day. But in our more refined moments we sense the need to not so much conquer the world as to serve it. We are most often living contradictions in such matters and in moments of clarity we comprehend the distinctions confronting us.
One part of us seeks direct answers, to create, where input leads to output, and effort leads to success and reward. There’s a lot of self-interest in such an approach and we benefit by that internal drive. But then there’s our more ethical side, which is almost the opposite – giving in order to receive, humility instead of pride, living for things outside of ourselves. The former works on our strengths, whereas the latter refines our character in ways the makes us better people rather than just instruments of someone else’s design – a pattern which, if pursued, leads us to foolishly judge other people by their abilities rather than their inherent worth.
As we age, we often make a startling discovery: in living life we have slowly turned ourselves into something not quite as impressive as we had hoped. We don’t love deeply enough. We are quick to judge, and slow to show grace. We see people in the perspective of their relationship to us as opposed to their own value to the world. Almost effortlessly, the years can create a gap between our resumé virtues and our eulogy virtues and we are humbled that we let it happen.
I have learned in my own life that, as a politician and a citizen, I often failed in this area. Maturity has reminded me that a kind of “ethical integration” has to occur that aligns my life with the deeper meanings of existence instead of with the things that press for my attention everyday.
There are millions of good people out there that fight for their resumé virtues and have a compelling sense of right and wrong. But eulogy virtues call for us to take things a step farther, and to put the fate of the broader world on a higher level in our lives. As Jim Butcher put it in his Fool Moon: “It isn’t enough to stand and fight darkness. You’ve got to stand apart from it, too. You’ve got to be different from it.” Put simply: we’ve got to struggle to become the kind of people who will eventually define our own funerals with nobility.