David Brooks: The Moral Bucket List

David Brooks
Op-Ed Columnist, New York Times

There’s a theme emerging in much of what I’m reading these days, as it becomes ever clearer to us all that many different kinds of change must take place in the world as a whole.

The paradigms that were developed and worked in the past are becoming useless in the face of the massive social, economic and environmental shifts happening worldwide.

I have no idea how, or even if, these changes will happen, but it seems logical to assume that if any movement at all is to take place, there would first need to be a “grass roots” shift in our understanding of what constitutes a balanced, meaningful life.

As an example, my brother-in-law recently sent out an email to the family, suggesting that the article below, written by David Brooks, Op-Ed Columnist for the New York Times, would be worth reading.  He was right.

I did read the article…and then I reread it.  I thought about it.  In fact, I couldn’t get it out of my mind.  We’ve all met or know about such people as he describes; and as a person attempting to live a good and caring life, I found the article spurred me to think more deeply about my own “moral bucket list.”

Here is David Brooks:

Rays of Light 3

ABOUT once a month, I run across 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.

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 resumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The resumé 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 resumé 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.

But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity.

You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys.

Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.

So a few years ago I set out to discover how those deeply good people got that way. I didn’t know if I could follow their road to character (I’m a pundit, more or less paid to appear smarter and better than I really am). But I at least wanted to know what the road looked like.

I came to the conclusion that wonderful people are made, not born — that the people I admired had achieved an unfakeable inner virtue, built slowly from specific moral and spiritual accomplishments.

If we wanted to be gimmicky, we could say these accomplishments amounted to a moral bucket list, the experiences one should have on the way toward the richest possible inner life. Here, quickly, are some of them:

The Humility Shift

We live in the culture of the Big Me. The meritocracy wants you to promote yourself. Social media wants you to broadcast a highlight reel of your life. Your parents and teachers were always telling you how wonderful you were.

But all the people I’ve ever deeply admired are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. They have identified their core sin, whether it is selfishness, the desperate need for approval, cowardice, hardheartedness or whatever. They have traced how that core sin leads to the behavior that makes them feel ashamed. They have achieved a profound humility, which has best been defined as an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.


External success is achieved through competition with others. But character is built during the confrontation with your own weakness. Dwight Eisenhower, for example, realized early on that his core sin was his temper. He developed a moderate, cheerful exterior because he knew he needed to project optimism and confidence to lead.

He did silly things to tame his anger. He took the names of the people he hated, wrote them down on slips of paper and tore them up and threw them in the garbage. Over a lifetime of self-confrontation, he developed a mature temperament. He made himself strong in his weakest places.

The Dependency Leap

Many people give away the book “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” as a graduation gift.

This book suggests that life is an autonomous journey. We master certain skills and experience adventures and certain challenges on our way to individual success. This individualist worldview suggests that character is this little iron figure of willpower inside.

But people on the road to character understand that no person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason and compassion are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride and self-deception. We all need redemptive assistance from outside.

People on this road see life as a process of commitment making. Character is defined by how deeply rooted you are. Have you developed deep connections that hold you up in times of challenge and push you toward the good?

In the realm of the intellect, a person of character has achieved a settled philosophy about fundamental things. In the realm of emotion, she is embedded in a web of unconditional loves. In the realm of action, she is committed to tasks that can’t be completed in a single lifetime.

Energizing Love

Dorothy Day led a disorganized life when she was young: drinking, carousing, a suicide attempt or two, following her desires, unable to find direction. But the birth of her daughter changed her.

She wrote of that birth, “If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms.”

That kind of love decenters the self. It reminds you that your true riches are in another. Most of all, this love electrifies. It puts you in a state of need and makes it delightful to serve what you love. Day’s love for her daughter spilled outward and upward.

As she wrote, “No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I often felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.”

She made unshakable commitments in all directions. She became a Catholic, started a radical newspaper, opened settlement houses for the poor and lived among the poor, embracing shared poverty as a way to build community, to not only do good, but be good.

This gift of love overcame, sometimes, the natural self-centeredness all of us feel.

The Call Within the Call

We all go into professions for many reasons: money, status, security. But some people have experiences that turn a career into a calling. These experiences quiet the self. All that matters is living up to the standard of excellence inherent in their craft.

Frances Perkins was a young woman who was an activist for progressive causes at the start of the 20th century. She was polite and a bit genteel. But one day she stumbled across the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, and watched dozens of garment workers hurl themselves to their deaths rather than be burned alive.

That experience shamed her moral sense and purified her ambition. It was her call within a call. After that, she turned herself into an instrument for the cause of workers’ rights. She was willing to work with anybody, compromise with anybody, push through hesitation. She even changed her appearance so she could become a more effective instrument for the movement.

She became the first woman in a United States cabinet, under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and emerged as one of the great civic figures of the 20th century.

The Conscience Leap

In most lives, there’s a moment when people strip away all the branding and status symbols, all the prestige that goes with having gone to a certain school or been born into a certain family. They leap out beyond the utilitarian logic and crash through the barriers of their fears.

The novelist George Eliot (her real name was Mary Ann Evans) was a mess as a young woman, emotionally needy, falling for every man she met and being rejected. Finally, in her mid-30s, she met a guy named George Lewes. Lewes was estranged from his wife, but legally he was married. If Eliot went with Lewes she would be labeled an adulterer by society. She’d lose her friends, be cut off by her family.

It took her a week to decide, but she went with Lewes. “Light and easily broken ties are what I neither desire theoretically nor could live for practically. Women who are satisfied with such ties do not act as I have done,” she wrote.

She chose well. Her character stabilized. Her capacity for empathetic understanding expanded. She lived in a state of steady, devoted love with Lewes, the kind of second love that comes after a person is older, scarred a bit and enmeshed in responsibilities. He served her and helped her become one of the greatest novelists of any age. Together they turned neediness into constancy.

Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self.

But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?

Their lives often follow a pattern of defeat, recognition, redemption. They have moments of pain and suffering. But they turn those moments into occasions of radical self-understanding — by keeping a journal or making art.

As Paul Tillich put it, suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were.

The people on this road see the moments of suffering as pieces of a larger narrative. They are not really living for happiness, as it is conventionally defined. They see life as a moral drama and feel fulfilled only when they are enmeshed in a struggle on behalf of some ideal.

This is a philosophy for stumblers. The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness. Recognizing her limitations, the stumbler at least has a serious foe to overcome and transcend. The stumbler has an outstretched arm, ready to receive and offer assistance. Her friends are there for deep conversation, comfort and advice.

External ambitions are never satisfied because there’s always something more to achieve. But the stumblers occasionally experience moments of joy. There’s joy in freely chosen obedience to organizations, ideas and people. There’s joy in mutual stumbling.

There’s an aesthetic joy we feel when we see morally good action, when we run across someone who is quiet and humble and good, when we see that however old we are, there’s lots to do ahead.

The stumbler doesn’t build her life by being better than others, but by being better than she used to be.

Unexpectedly, there are transcendent moments of deep tranquility. For most of their lives, their inner and outer ambitions are strong and in balance. But eventually, at moments of rare joy, career ambitions pause, the ego rests, the stumbler looks out at a picnic or dinner or a valley and is overwhelmed by a feeling of limitless gratitude, and an acceptance of the fact that life has treated her much better than she deserves.

Those are the people we want to be.

“The stumbler doesn’t build her life by being better than others, but by being better than she used to be.”  For me, that one line says it all.




  1. I think you’ve hit the germ of it in the way you’ve concluded your post. I read this article a few days ago and it also stuck in my mind. I’ve thought about what it says and much of it makes me angry, honestly.

    In my life I have believed most of what David Brooks has written here and acted on it, often to my own injury. “I will not give up on my brother.” “My mom will come around; she just needs to know people care about her. When she understands that, she’ll be happy and get over the pain of my father’s death,” … My list is very, very long. The point that caring for others draws us out of ourselves is absolutely true — my mother taught me that, by the way, as a method for ensuring that I would enable her alcoholism.

    Not all of the “unshakable” ties we make are worth making. Not all of our families are worth loving and I don’t believe holding my baby in my arms would have begun to equal writing a meaningful novel (which I have written) or teaching more than 10,000 students to express their ideas more clearly. I don’t believe the lowest common denominator of human achievement (mating and having children) is the apex of human possibility for everyone — for many, for most, but not for all. I would rather have died than ever have been a mother, but I proved to be a very good “other adult” in the lives of other people’s kids.

    Nonetheless, I’m one of Brooks’ “stumblers.” I have never been motivated by ambition and none of the road markers of achievement have never meant anything to me. In my life I never “got anywhere.” But the world really did not ever want anything from me. It doesn’t want anything from anyone. That it might is an egoistic perception that makes a lie out of altruism (“If you help others, you feel good, so it’s not really altruism, is it?”) I see a lot more wisdom in the simple statements “Do no harm” and “Serve the task” and “Love your neighbor.”


    1. Yes, I have to say that I would have chosen different examples if the bucket list had been my own. But that’s true of all of us, isn’t it. And I can see how his assumptions would anger you, given the pain you’ve clearly endured on your own life’s journey.

      And yet, look at you! I remember as clearly as yesterday those several teachers who made a difference in my life sixty years ago. And you, having had some 10,000 students pass through your classroom, just think how many of them out there in the world are thinking and writing clearly, perhaps even making a career of writing today, because you mentored them into doing just that. And holding a “new-born” novel–or a new puppy–in your hands; same feeling, different objects. Generative creativity, all of it, just wearing different hats.

      Have you considered that this might be exactly what the world wanted from you? Well, I would phrase it differently, because I look at life through a rather “cosmic” lens, and I’m also a Buddhist, but let’s let that question stand as is. I’ve always believed that there’s a “something” from which we emerge and to which we return. I think we’re each of us here to learn particular lessons, for a particular reason, and part of our task in life is to learn what that reason and its accompanying lessons might be. Some lucky people know their path from the get-go. I didn’t. But, at age 68 1/2, I’m getting clearer on that. I never said I was a quick study… 🙂

      Anyway, I think David Brooks has a point, even though we see his (male) bucket list through a different lens. I think that balance is part of what he’s getting at, balance between the hard-nosed, hard-hitting side of a personality (one that is often trained into us, especially into the male of the species) and the softer, loving aspects that also belong to us and sometimes don’t get nurtured as much as they should be. And vice versa; women were trained differently from men in our day, but trained we were, no doubt about that!

      Of course I could be harboring that thought simply because I’m finally at a place in my life where I have the freedom to explore and investigate all the facets of the personality that makes me who I am, and balance is something I’ve striven to achieve for much of my own life! And like you, I’m a stumbler who never cared about “making it big.” Process, I realize, is far more important than goal for me.

      You’re a fascinating person, Martha. Thank you so much for this conversation.


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      1. I hadn’t thought of that — Brooks wrote this for MOST people and I think the audience he’s written for is probably NOT us, but the two younger generations who are out there who ARE driven by ambition and (I would say) greed. We WERE trained differently and trained by a generation who had gone through the twin hells of the Depression and WW II. And…one of the things I love most about my new town is that people are nice to each other and that right there has made it possible for me to relax — but why are they? Because it’s a small, economically challenged farming community. There’s no place for arrogance here at all. Nature will knock you upside the head if nothing else does. I didn’t disagree with Brooks, but not his examples — that’s exactly right. As for teaching — most of my career I was an effective teacher because I loved teaching. Most of my career I got up every morning thinking, “I get to go to school!” I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to earn a living at something that gave me so much joy. That now oft’ quoted statement of Joseph Campbell, “Follow your bliss,” is just really good advice and I was lucky to have had that as a way to earn a living. But I never want to do it again. 😉


      2. Lucky is right! A career you loved, and now living in a place where you’re comfortable and happy. Not too shabby at all.

        I was “trained,” if you will, into a career I neither respected nor enjoyed. I’m not sorry that life took me where it did, because it gave me some interesting tools along the way, and I learned to make the most of the work I was doing. I explored many different creative avenues in addition to my day job, and that experience was priceless. But I’m with you all the way in that once around was quite enough for me. I love being retired! [Jeez Louise, what a come-down to discover after all these years that my bliss is to be found in being a lazy slob who basically sits around either reading or writing…tee hee.]

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