Good Whistler in the Dark . . .
In "The Moral Bucket List" (NYT, April 11, 2015) - a "bucket list" being a list of things to do before you "kick the bucket," (i.e., die) and a "moral" bucket list being a list of ways of being and doing that make one a better person - David Brooks tells us that around once a month, he encounters such a special person:
. . . 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.Unlike Mr. Brooks, I rarely - wife excepted - encounter such deeply good individuals. I'm not one of them, myself, either. (I'm not even one to exemplify the career virtues!) I'm more the sort who needs to fasten a reminder to the morning's shaving mirror, four simple words on a strip of paper to jog the memory by insisting, "This is the problem." I wish that fellow in the mirror weren't me, but he is me, perhaps even down to his being left-handed as reflected etymological signifier of that which is sinister in me despite my apparent dexterity. Just clumsy? I guess . . .
When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder 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.
A few years ago I realized that I wanted to be a bit more like those people. I realized that if I wanted to do that I was going to have to work harder to save my own soul. I was going to have to have the sort of moral adventures that produce that kind of goodness. I was going to have to be better at balancing my life.
It occurred to me that there were two 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?
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.
I'd like to be a man who deserves his eulogy - since the living tend to say only kind words about a deceased man, no matter what his real characteristics were. There's sometimes little to say.
My great uncle Tom Shell - younger brother to the grandmother who raised me - felt the calling to be a minister after retiring from his career, and though he had been an ethical man before, he became a better man afterwards in doing what he felt he should have been doing his whole life long. I asked him shortly before he passed away if he'd ever had to offer a eulogy for a man with no virtues to speak of.
He'd had one such case, he admitted, in which he'd had to ask around for people's thoughts about a scoundrel to determine if there were anything good to say about the old reprobate, and there was one good thing everybody agreed on.
The man was a "good whistler."
And that was the eulogy.