It’s two days before the inauguration. I have been preparing for that event by reading. I read Hillbilly Elegy (as I mentioned last time), by J.D. Vance. Where he came from—first Appalachia, then southern Ohio—a large swath of people, he says, for various reasons, developed fear of the unknown, passivity, lack of belief in their abilities, uncivil behavior to each other yet fierce loyalty to family, and fierce love of country. And love of religion in the abstract, although not so many are churchgoers.
I was both profoundly interested and frustrated, because Vance doesn’t offer—and indeed seems unsure, himself—what might be done to change things.
So then I was attracted to David Brooks’ The Road to Character, which has turned out to be much better than I imagined. Brooks offers intelligent, well-researched, and eloquent descriptions of a number of people who’ve made a huge difference in the world, focusing on how they got to be the kind of people who could do that: Samuel Johnson, Dorothy Day, George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, Johnny Unitas, St. Augustine, Bayard Rustin, George Eliot—10 in all, I think.
The somewhat dismissive New York Times reviewer calls the book, “all-American hopefulness,” a lot of “simplification.” (But then he ends the review by saying that there’s no one he gets more excited about arguing with.)
I don’t know if there’s any one thing that builds character. For Vance, it was his grandmother who “saved” him by believing in him and giving him a sense of stability. For David Brooks’s profiled people, it was often their very flaws, their sometimes unsavory personalities, that somehow tipped them toward a righteous cause. The “heroes” of his book are not “good” people, always, but they are people who got good things done.
So, in that spirit, I’m going to march in the Traverse City women’s march on Saturday—the local parallel to the March on Washington—with the uneasy sense that I have no answers, myself. I may not have the right information, and I may be operating under my own delusions about what’s good and what’s not. Now here’s where I come to with this: It’s better to march than not, carrying with me my own flaws, my own dis-ease.
What formed me? My parents and grandparents, in spite of their flaws, demonstrated truthfulness, faithfulness to commitments, and love. I was lucky in that way. I do think we do a terrible job in this country of early childhood training, and that we’d do well to get a lot of kids out of their homes all day in early daycare situations that help develop a sense of stability and character. That’s one thing, but I don’t have any profound answers.
Maybe there aren’t any. Brooks says that we abandoned moral realism after the World Wars, that when we got through the awfulness, the culture began to want ease, and peace of mind. It was the era of Benjamin Spock, who said let infants have their way. They’ll grow up happier and better adjusted. Praising children became preferable to pointing out their faults. We may have developed several generations of people who feel entitled with no sense of obligation. Or not.
What is the “right” balance of chastisement and praise in rearing children? Every classroom teacher struggles with this issue. I know. I taught methods classes for future English teachers for a number of years. Grade inflation was a frequent topic of conversation. What does an A mean? How can half the class really be superior when a C supposedly means average?
Back to character. Some people call it fate, some call it grace, some call it DNA (which doesn’t necessarily rule out the first two). There’s something to be said, I think, for the concept of original sin, or, to put it another and probably a lot better way, to be taught that we are burdened with karma from God-knows-where in our past (generations back) as well as in our present. We are crooked lumber from the start. And that’s okay. That’s the Truth. We just need to learn how to build a good boat finding ways to use the best parts of our crooked lumber, in the most skillful way we can.