A few years ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about two different sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?
As an estate planning attorney, the meaning of eulogy virtues appeals to me. Prior to reading Brooks’ column on the subject, it never occurred to me how our society has tipped the scales so far over to what he calls résumé virtues.
What does Brooks refer to when he writes about eulogy virtues? We’ve all run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical, and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.
Whenever I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. I’ll even brag that my middle daughter possesses such characteristics. But I confess I often have a melancholy thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character, at least to the degree that I hope for.
We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.
But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody, and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys.
Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet. This transcends one individual and speaks to our society. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that society needs more than the free market and the liberal democratic state. He says that it needs us to accept moral responsibility for our own lives and for the common good. The truths of what Brooks and Sacks write about is that the strains of the résumé virtues show up in populism, identity politics, and the rise of both the far left and far right — the politics of anger.
I write this column during the Jewish High Holy Day season, the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This year it began on September 9th and lasts until September 19th. Since I am of the Jewish faith, this is the time that I reflect on what I can do to become a better person, and to lead a better life. This doesn’t necessarily mean for myself, but how I can do more for others.
The High Holy Day service prayers tend to summon us to dedicate ourselves individually and collectively to justice, compassion, the sanctity of life and the dignity of the individual. God does not ask us to be perfect. Rather, he asks us to try our best to love Him, our neighbor and the stranger. When we fail, as we all do one way or another, He asks us to acknowledge our failures and try again.
So, this is what I will pledge to do, and hope that I build more of my eulogy virtues. Just before Rosh Hashanah Patti and I were in New York visiting with our eldest daughter and her boyfriend. It is comforting to me that our daughter values her relationship as much as we value ours with her. It makes me feel that we’ve done a few things right.
Now that Patti and I are empty nesters I’m sure we’ll have a greater opportunity to build our eulogy virtues. You may have read my column on the difficulty I’m having transitioning to this new stage of my life. It’s fortuitous that the High Holy Days follows on the heels of this change, and that I have the opportunity to reflect on my hopes and wishes for the coming seasons.
Whether or not you’re of my faith, I wish you and yours a healthy and happy upcoming season, and that collectively our nation renews our values of inclusion, hope and justice for all of our citizens. Whenever each and every one of us commits a small act of kindness, it matters. If enough of us begin to think this way, I believe it will make a real difference.
© 2018 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.