Are these things mutually exclusive?
I recently read a fantastic book by David Brooks called The Road to Character and it is one of those reads that really shifts the ground from under you and you don’t quite see things the same way after reading it.
I will set up a scene for you, it’s September 1945 the Western Allies have just won the Second World War, a tortuous 6 years where our very way of life was at risk and Bing Crosby & Burgess Meredith have just heard a few hours before going to air as volunteer radio announces that we have won the war and they announce our victory, like this:
Bing Crosby said, "We've just learned we've won this war, but we don't feel too proud at a moment like this, we just feel humbled, we're just glad we got through it."
Burgess Meredith said, "We won this war because we have a lot of great allies, we have brave soldiers, but we're not God's chosen people. We should just try to stay modest and be worthy of the peace."
Fast forward to now and let’s look at some NFL football touchdowns, you know what’s coming….
David Brooks describes his feelings of this contrast;
And that symbolised to me a shift in culture from a culture of self-effacement that says, "I'm no better than anybody else, but nobody's better than me," to a culture of achievement and distinction that says, "Look at me, I'm kinda special." And I think our modern culture is better in a lot of ways, really a lot better - we have a fairer society, a kinder society. But in this expansion of self, I think we've become a little more egotistical than that earlier generation and I thought it was useful to try to reclaim some of the humility that was a little more common then, I think.
Then you overlay social media.
I was on a plane in the States a couple of weeks ago and I was sitting next to a woman with a phone, a big phone, and she spent the two hours of the flight watching videos of herself. And sort of somehow in the age of Instagram and Facebook, we spend a lot more time creating highlight reels of ourselves which we send out to the world. And so there is sort of a celebrification that has gone on. And then I think there's been a shift in philosophy, as I said, from that philosophy that said I'm sorta broken inside and I have to be aware of my weakness to a philosophy that says I'm kinda wonderful inside and "Look how great I am". And so all those things have contributed to a cultural shift, I'd say.
Where do we go from here?
That leads me to something even more interesting and that is the role that struggle plays in developing character and ultimately meaning in life.
David Brooks says when you ask somebody, "What's the experience that really made you who you are today?" I've never met anybody who says, "I went on this amazing vacation in Hawaii and that made me who I am today." Nobody ever says that. When people talk about the experiences that are most shaping and transformational, they tend to involve some struggle. And so I don't think we - we should want happiness and I'm all for great meals and great fun, but most people want a life of meaning and that sometimes involves some struggle and sometimes moments of unhappiness.
Which brings me to Marcus Aurelius the last of the so called Good Emperors, Russell Crowe’s Emperor played by Richard Harris in The Gladiator movie and prominent advocate of Stoicism , which is making a recovery of sorts in the modern world against this wave of self-promotion.
When you read some of these very wise quotes from Marcus Aurelius you realise how out of place they are with the cultural norms of today.
Dare I say channel the videos of Donald Trump you can’t get out of your head, then read these quotes for some serious cognitive dissonance……..
A noble man compares and estimates himself by an idea which is higher than himself; and a mean man, by one lower than himself. The one produces aspiration; the other ambition, which is the way in which a vulgar man aspires.
Or is it your reputation that’s bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of those applauding hands. The people who praise us; how capricious they are, how arbitrary. And the tiny region it takes place. The whole earth a point in space – and most of it uninhabited.
A person’s worth is measured by the worth of what he values.
The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, in so far as it stands ready against the accidental and the unforeseen, and is not apt to fall.
The happiness of those who want to be popular depends on others; the happiness of those who seek pleasure fluctuates with moods outside their control; but the happiness of the wise grows out of their own free acts.
A man must stand erect, not be kept erect by others.
So you know how things stand. Now forget what they think of you. Be satisfied if you can live the rest of your life, however short, as your nature demands. Focus on that, and don’t let anything distract you. You’ve wandered all over and finally realized that you never found what you were after: how to live. Not in syllogisms, not in money, or fame, or self-indulgence. Nowhere.
A man should always have these two rules in readiness. First, to do only what the reason of your ruling and legislating faculties suggest for the service of man. Second, to change your opinion whenever anyone at hand sets you right and unsettles you in an opinion, but this change of opinion should come only because you are persuaded that something is just or to the public advantage, not because it appears pleasant or increases your reputation.
Do not disturb yourself by picturing your life as a whole; do not assemble in your mind the many and varied troubles which have come to you in the past and will come again in the future, but ask yourself with regard to every present difficulty: ‘What is there in this that is unbearable and beyond endurance?’
For outward show is a wonderful perverter of the reason.
A good man does not spy around for the black spots in others, but presses unswervingly on towards his mark.
Every man is worth just so much as the things about which he busies himself.
Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions.
Pride is a master of deception: when you think you’re occupied in the weightiest business, that’s when he has you in his spell.
Marcus Aurelius- The Meditations
David Brooks Interview with ABC Lateline’s Tony Jones
The overriding element that comes through strongly with all of these philosophies is the power and responsibility each of us has to define what matters to us, through reason and rationality and upon settling on that if you are willing to live your life directed towards those things you will find inner peace.
It just so happens that with the help of these philosophies, after you spend honest time reasoning with your feelings & life experiences you will see a pattern emerge that will show a correlation between phases of your life when you were spending time on the non-material things of kindness, empathy, honesty expressed between and for loved ones that inner peace became most present in your life. Cut free from the outcomes of your actions where the action in and of itself becomes the reward is where I think real meaning lives.
Hopefully ending up in a place where your Resume You merges, with the Eulogy You.
If you want to follow some of David Brook’s exploration of this subject, he has an amazing website that records peoples amazing character building stories of everyday people.