David Brooks recently had a fantastic op-ed piece in The New York Times entitled “The Moral Bucket List“. It’s an amazingly well-written and insightful treatise on living a meaningful life, especially coming from a conservative political pundit.
(I kid. I kid. Sort of.)
The article spoke to me on a few different levels. As an educator working in an institution that has a 100% college matriculation rate upon graduation, with a similarly impressive tuition price tag, I watch as my students seek to “make their mark” in the world. The emphasis is on achievement, productivity, success, with the benchmarks and measures for those goals all too often focusing on the tangible: the scholarship, the elected position, the GPA, the college acceptance.
Let me be clear that I’m not criticizing my institution, specifically; our institutions are reflections of society. We live in a world that values the outward measures of success – the salary, the houses, the vacations – and living in Dallas, I witness that on a grand scale.
I want my students, and my children, to strive for more than a fat paycheck and flush 401(k) (not that there’s anything wrong with those); I want my students, and my children, to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield on the journey towards self-actualization, and goodness, and morality.
But more significantly, this article spoke to my journey, lifelong but particularly since 2010, to become the best me.
I have written before how I knew, even as I was in excruciating pain, and shock, and sorrow, over the burning ruins of my charmed and cherished life, that this was it. This was God, or the Universe, or Buddha, or whatever the best term is for that divine influence that I believe in, bitch slapping me across the face. This was my chance, my opportunity, for the best kind of self-growth. I could either rise like a phoenix, bloom like a lotus, or I could wallow in the shit that lay in the wake of 2010.
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.
So I have tried, I mean really tried, to live into the person that I want to be. To fill my moral bucket list. I read (and continue to read) countless books, on everything from coparenting after divorce to how to heal from PTSD to existential philosophy. I completed the Tutu Forgiveness Challenge. I consulted with therapists, mine and my children’s, and followed their advice. I practice self-care, when I can. I turn the other cheek, when I can. I live and let live.
When I can.
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.
Brick by brick, stone by stone, I have tried to cultivate and grow my inner virtue. It is a Sisyphean task, for it seems like every time I do something right, every time I am flexible in the face of rigid hostility, every time I stop short of retaliation, every time I smile and nod when the mean and petty inner voice wants to snarkily retort … some bouncing boulder of injustice or vindictiveness sweeps my legs and sends me rolling down the hill of enlightenment, cursed to begin the upward trek once again.
External success is achieved through competition with others. But character is built during the confrontation with your own weakness.
And even as I gnash my teeth and shake my fist at the sky, wailing “it’s not FAIR! None of this is fair. *I* was the one betrayed. *I* was the one blindsided. *I* never wanted this and I am the one doing the right thing and (xyz, fill in the blank)” I know that, really, it’s beside the point.
I hate it. But it’s true. Because it’s not about what others do to me, it’s about my own choices, my own actions, my own virtue. To believe otherwise not only re-victimizes myself, but misses, what I believe, is the entire purpose of life.
The stumbler doesn’t build her life by being better than others, but by being better than she used to be.
I will never have a fancy car, or vacation home. More than likely, I will never have a fat paycheck or flush 401(k). And honestly? I don’t know if I will ever fill my moral bucket list. I’m trying, but mine seems particularly deep (or it has a hole in the bottom. Or something).
But I’m trying.