What We Need Most on Our Moral Bucket List

Several friends contacted me to call to my attention an article in the Times Magazine by the well-known pundit, David Brooks, entitled “The Moral Bucket List”.  It’s an adaptation and summary of a new book by Mr. Brooks called The Road to Character.

In it, Mr. Brooks describes his dissatisfaction with his own character, and his desire to be more like a person who “radiates an inner light”, who is “deeply good”.  He clearly has thought a great deal about this, and has done considerable introspection. He came to the conclusion that to become more like those admirable people, he would have to “work harder to save his own soul”.  He had to grow in virtue by working on some specific “moral and spiritual accomplishments”.  In short, he came up with a prescription for several character-building projects that would become “a moral bucket list”:

  • The Humility Shift — There is no doubt that we live in a narcissistic and meritocratic culture that focuses only on the “Big Me”.   To develop that antidote of humility, we have to be honest about our true weaknesses, and then identify the “core sin” that has created them (e.g., selfishness, cowardice, hard-heartedness).
  • Self-Defeat — The way to build true character is not through competition with others, but by confronting our own weaknesses, and turning them into our strengths.
  • The Dependency Leap — Our culture encourages us to be self-absorbed atomistic individuals, but the foundation of good character actually is cultivating deep, committed relationships that recognize how dependent we all are on each other.
  • Energizing Love — We can overcome our self-centeredness by experiencing love for another.
  • The Call Within the Call — Instead of concentrating on status, money, and security, we need to find some way to convert our career into a calling to work for an ideal.

These suggestions are actually quite good.  But they left me cold, because I realized that they were missing something essential.

They were missing God.

When I was reading Mr. Brooks’ article, I couldn’t help but recall a key passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions.  For years, Augustine had sought truth and virtue through a variety of means — secular learning and success, sensuality, and esoteric religious cults.  He filled his bucket list with many “adventures”, but he was still deeply unsatisfied.

In the end, he came to realize that what he was seeking was within him all along, but was not just himself — it was the presence of God who loved him passionately and totally.  And when he embraced that truth, he finally found the peace and joy he longed for.  This realization led him to pen these immortal and moving words:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!

You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you.

In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you.

Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.

You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.

You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.

You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you.

I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.

You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

I deeply sympathize with Mr. Brooks’ search for goodness and meaning in his life, but I think he’s not reaching for the ultimate answer to his yearning.  Like him, I have spent my life in that quest. I have filled my bucket with many experiences and accomplishments, and all too often I have relied on them to give my life meaning.  But every time I have grasped at those distractions, I have been left empty and dissatisfied.

What I have come to realize, is the same thing that Augustine finally understood.  All the other things that I have searched for, all the things that I thought would give me meaning, didn’t provide a true solution.  The secret to finding real happiness and real character, and to saving my soul, was there all along, in the love of God that dwells within me and that draws me into communion with Him.

There are lots of things that I need to put on my “moral bucket list”, and Mr. Brooks’ suggestions are a pretty good start.  But I can’t be satisfied with that — the thing I need most on my “moral bucket list” is nothing less than God himself.

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5 Responses to “What We Need Most on Our Moral Bucket List”

  1. DottieDay says:

    I really liked this entry. It probes our restlessness. You explore an exciting contrast between living with God and without Him. You give yearning meaning. Terrific. I hope poor Mr. Brooks reads this. In fact, maybe I’ll just send him the link.

  2. Alexis says:

    This is deep. Not only are you a lawyer, but somehow, you’re also becoming a philosopher.

    All kidding aside, this is a very beautiful reflection that resonates with each one of us. You do a great job of explaining how only God fills this void we feel, even in the midst of the material pleasures and successes that we wrongly believe will fulfill us.

    I think our search for goodness and meaning is actually one of the best proofs for the existence of God. We try to fill our lives with the “goods” of the temporal world, but these goods will only satisfy our yearning at a partial level. Our yearning for complete fulfillment directs us to something further: the ultimate good that transcends humanity – God.

    I always pray that those who are suffering in their search for meaning will someday realize the love God has for them.

    Excellent post, Ed.

  3. Christina A. says:

    Great post Ed! I saw a mini interview with Brooks on this moral bucket list idea and it was impressive that he was even thinking about it. But, as you so eloquently stated, was lacking the key element of God within us.

  4. Peter Rox says:

    When I read Brooks’ column in the Times, I also was struck that he seemed to attempt to avoid God. However, it is very interesting that of the many good people whom he could have chosen to use as examples, that he did write about Dorothy Day and her spiritual journey in and with the Catholic faith. By omitting the religious/spiritual lives of people on their individual “roads to character”, he almost sounds like a spokesperson for the “good without God” movement, exemplified by the atheist (humanist) chaplain at Harvard, Gregory Epstein. I think that much that drives the denial of God and/or organized religion today is the utter failure of so much of the religious leadership of a great many denominations to actually live holiness or exemplify holiness.

  5. Ed Mechmann says:

    @PeterRox

    You are right about this — if we don’t live it, nobody will believe it.