One of my favourite places is a cemetery. It is not the kind of cemetery you might have in mind, with neat rows of headstones, manicured lawns, well-defined paths, and people quietly mourning their loved ones. The 14-acre Newington cemetery in Edinburgh – part of the post-1830s garden cemetery movement – is in the process of rewilding. Ivy and other climbing plants envelop headstones, most of which have been upended by trees – oak, pine, ash, elm, holly, beech, maple, yew, hornbeam, sycamore, horse chestnut, sweet chestnut. As bodies were buried beneath soil, headstones are becoming buried beneath foliage, with names and eulogies obscured more with each passing year.
The cemetery includes several “notable” graves: the distinguished and highly decorated General who served in both World Wars and oversaw the British troops in Palestine and Transjordan; the French golf champion who was the first non-British player to win The Open; the revered missionary who translated the New Testament into Korean; the ‘rock star’ Pipe Major whose death saw 20,000 people lining the streets of Aberdeen to pay tribute; the mathematician and seismologist whose work on wave transmission across the boundaries of sea and land remains fundamental to seismology; one of Scotland’s finest painters of sky and seascapes.
Walking in the cemetery, I rarely see visitors to specific graves. Only fellow walkers, with no connection to those buried. As psychologist Stephen Joseph writes in his book Think like a therapist, there is great value in visiting cemeteries in this way, and “it is more common than you might imagine.” I spend much time reflecting here. It is a place for questions about life and death. Why do some graves have ostentatious memorials, while others just a simple name and date? Why do we maintain the war graves, but not the others? Why are religions separated? Why are paupers buried en masse in a raised section, with no stones at all? Why did some die so young? Why are some graves marked on the website as “notable”, while others are not?
This has been a year of several deaths for me. Early in the year, my ‘grandparents’ Jack and Alice died within weeks of each other. Alice was actually my father’s cousin – their mothers were sisters and grew up in Wales (for some time in the workhouse in Merthyr Tydfil), before moving to Salford, England, for a new life. But Alice was 20 years or so older that my father, and took care of him after his mother died when he was just 16. She was like an auntie to him, and her and Jack were like grandparents to me and my siblings.
Alice and Jack were two of the people who had most impact on my life. They had simple tastes, liked simple food, and lived simple lives. They were kind and welcoming and provided the refuge that I needed as a child and teenager, through into adulthood. They were giving and generous; whatever they had, which materially was little, they would share or give away. They lived for service. They were devoted to their family and to each other, and in love until the end. Alice developed dementia later in life, and Jack looked after her at home until she died. Jack died a few weeks later.
Jack and Alice, buried together, would not be one of the “notable” graves. But they were more than notable to me and to the people who knew them. And this made me think again about the résumé virtues and eulogy virtues described in The Road to Character by David Brooks: “The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy values are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being — whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.”
“The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy values are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being — whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.”The Road to Character by David Brooks
Brooks notes that “most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé virtues”. And yet we spend most of our lives thinking about and working on résumé virtues. Most of society is structured around résumé virtues: parenting, the education system, the job market, sport, policy making, and of course social media, which “encourages a broadcasting personality” and “a hypercompetitive struggle for attention, for victories in the currency of “likes.””
Brooks associates résumé virtues with the “meritocratic mentality” which is “depoeticized and despiritualized“: “The self is less likely to be seen as the seat of the soul, or as the repository of some transcendent spirit. Instead, the self is a vessel of human capital. It is a series of talents to be cultivated efficiently and prudently. The self is defined by its tasks and accomplishments.” We can see this in education, which has become utilitarian and functional, but with the primary function being to progress to the next institutionally curricularised step via measurement, grading and ranking (all done with a pretence of validity and objectivity). Vocations, gifts and intrinsic fulfilment are sacrificed for careers, rewards and achievements.
Life is viewed through the lens of work and usefulness of the self as a resource. Even our private time is professionalised, with the use and cost of time viewed against professional goals and values associated with notions of ‘success’. Friendships, commitments and interactions become ever-more guided by résumé virtues. All of this has a cost on the soul.
This is perhaps most sad when one sees how it affects children over the course of their young lives, with the chiselling of character so that ‘nice but low value’ traits are chipped away in favour of those that are likely to provide a return on the investment of parenting and schooling. Worthiness is defined in terms of competitive advantage, and therefore love and acceptance is conditional on ‘success’.
Even the term ‘character’ has changed in meaning, says Brooks: “It is used less to describe traits like selflessness, generosity, self-sacrifice, and other qualities that sometimes make worldly success less likely. It is instead used to describe traits like self-control, grit, resilience, and tenacity, qualities that make worldly success more likely.” Brooks found that our vocabulary has indeed changed over time. By searching Google ngrams, he found that over recent decades, the use of individualist words and phrases, and words associated with economics and business have increased, while the language of morality and character building such as “character”, “conscience”, “virtue”, “bravery”, “gratitude”, “humbleness”, and “kindness” have decreased markedly. In a hypercompetetive world, such traits can even be seen as liabilities.
The traits that people remember most fondly after we die are often the traits that are least valued and therefore least rewarded in life. Yet what we remember privately is often not what we eulogise publicly. Few of the gravestones in the cemetery mention character. Most mention – if anything other than name, dates, and significant others – achievements, ranks and titles. But what kind of people were they? One of the few that I have found that eulogised character instead of résumé reads: “In memory of Job Bone, to commemorate his public spirit and in acknowledgement of his untiring efforts to promote the wellbeing of his fellow citizens.” I had to search historical records to find his occupation: a master tailor. While we may sometimes eulogise résumé virtues in death, and even try to professionalise eulogy virtues in life, these are counterfeits for the real thing.
In all aspects of life, the more I listen to people, the more I find that people’s experience of family of origin seems to have great effect on how they are as people, in whatever relationship or occupation they are in. Looking back, I didn’t think that résumé virtues were prioritised in my own upbringing. Little attention was paid to grades or positions in class or at sport. Intellectualism was hardly prized at all. I was the first in my family history to attend university and I was never really sure how anyone felt about it. Academic titles grated with my upbringing and I remain ambivalent about them. Résumé virtues were subconsciously equated with pride, the mother of all sins somehow infused into my only vaguely religious upbringing.
But then I realised that one particular résumé virtue was valued: a hard (physical) work ethic, in the context of a family business and home that required a lot of work. But I could see that résumé virtues were necessary to progress, and to do what I wanted to do. And the résumé virtue of hard physical work transmuted into hard academic work.
Somehow, résumé virtues and eulogy virtues need to be in better balance. Brooks sees the way toward this as joining a counterculture to parry the achievement ethos and meritocratic mindset, and the norms, assumptions, beliefs and habits of the associated moral ecology. While his suggested counter-tradition of moral realism will not appeal to all (and his casual use of religious concepts such as ‘sin’ and ‘grace’ will be positively off-putting to many), his associated questions feel relevant: “Toward what should I orient my life? Who am I and what is my nature? How do I mold my nature to make it gradually better day by day? What virtues are the most important to cultivate and what weaknesses should I fear the most? How can I raise my children with a true sense of who they are and a practical set of ideas about how to travel the long road to character?”
The road to character, for Brooks, involves a struggle against pride and other limitations of our nature – selfishness, self-centredness, overconfidence, prejudice, short-termism, materialism – which propel us toward a focus on résumé virtues. “There is something heroic about a person in struggle with herself, strained on the rack of conscience, suffering torments, yet staying alive and growing stronger, sacrificing a worldly success for the sake of an inner victory.”
Humility is seen as the greatest virtue in this struggle: “Humility is having an accurate assessment of your own nature and your own place in the cosmos…awareness that you are an underdog in the struggle against your own weakness.” Humility counteracts pride, which “blinds us to our own weaknesses…makes us more certain and closed-minded than we should be…makes it hard for us to be vulnerable” and “deludes us into thinking that we are the authors of our own lives”.
The inner confrontation described by Brooks is remarkably consistent to that of 12-Step programmes and fellowships, but also with the psychology of personality change via behaviour change. “You become more disciplined, considerate, and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control, sharing, service, friendship, and refined enjoyment. If you make disciplined, caring choices, you are slowly engraving certain tendencies into your mind.”
We should also, according to Brooks, be mindful of short-term urges in favour of long-term traits such as courage, honesty and humility: “People with character are capable of a long obedience in the same direction, of staying attached to people and causes and callings consistently through thick and thin.” This is not a solitary act, but a collective endeavour, and is characterised by “advance-retreat-advance”, requiring acceptance and more humility.
In an age of hypercompetitiveness, learning from those unconsumed by résumé virtues also feels like a good idea, including those who are no longer here, but perhaps feel as if they are. For me, Alice and Jack are still here. Not only can I see and hear them vividly, I can feel their warmth and welcome. I still experience their stability and dependability. What mattered and what remains are their eulogy virtues, which were remembered, spoken of and felt with deep fondness and emotion, not only at their funerals, but throughout their lives, and now after their deaths for as long as those who knew them are alive to remember.