To Stumble and Not Fall

The service was over. Despite all the people milling about, I was in my own, little world, decompressing from the speech I had just made. As I stared vacantly into the field beyond the headstones, I thought about what I had just shared with the crowd — my grandpa’s many, beautiful attributes; tales of his life and accomplishments; and a few funny anecdotes to lighten the mood and pay homage to his unexpected and charming eccentricities.

In that moment, as I’m sure is common after experiencing a loss, I started thinking about what was truly important in life. Was it, as society suggests, the characteristics and accomplishments we use to improve our social standing and further our careers? Or, was it the types of qualities and achievements that I had just outlined in my grandpa’s remembrance speech?

New York Times columnist David Brooks describes these two, contrasting virtue types, plainly enough, as “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” In his TED Talk entitled Should You Live for Your Resume … or Your Eulogy?, he explains that resume virtues are “the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success,” while, “eulogy virtues are deeper. [...] They exist at the core of your being — whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.”

He laments that we often allow the prospect of creating an impressive resume — or, simply, the idea of leading a remarkable life — to distract ourselves from developing the attributes that make our lives meaningful — our eulogy virtues. We most likely do this because resume virtues are more immediately gratifying while it usually takes a lifetime to be praised for our eulogy virtues. Even so, immediate gratification or eventual praise should not be all we’re after in life. Therefore, Brooks advises that, in order to increase the quality of our character and earn the eulogy that we desire, we should work on battling our weaknesses instead of building upon our strengths.

While the thought of creating struggles within ourselves — even if it is to better our own lives — seems unpleasant, Brooks idealizes the notion in his book entitled, The Road to Character. His words make the idea seem like a transcendent deed and, therefore, a little more bearable. He says:

Although we are flawed creatures, we are also splendidly endowed. [...] We are both weak and strong, bound and free, blind and far-seeing. We thus have the capacity to struggle with ourselves. 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.

That day in the cemetery, the fact that my grandpa had lived a truly meaningful life and deserved a beautiful eulogy, drove me to face one my greatest weaknesses  — my fear of public speaking. It also made confronting the inner conflict that this induced a little easier and infinitely more worthwhile. Ironically, it was the act of giving this speech — the act that occurred right before my moment of contemplation about what was truly important in life — that, according to Brooks, may have brought me one step closer toward living a more meaningful life.

Although I did, ideally, I should not have even considered allowing my fear of public speaking to dissuade me from honoring my grandpa. When the idea was presented to me, though, I first thought in terms of my resume virtues — about how I was not a good public speaker. Fortunately, I was able to overcome this to think in terms of my eulogy virtues instead — about how I longed to give my grandpa the eulogy he deserved. Yes, I had faltered. Fortunately, in this instance, I had prevailed.

It's easy to stumble when deciding whether or not to take on life altering challenges. After all, they're usually quite difficult to overcome. Thankfully, we can all take solace in these words from The Road to Character

We are all stumblers, and the beauty and meaning of life are in the stumbling — in recognizing the stumbling and trying to become more graceful as the years go by. [...] The stumbler is made whole by this struggle.