Last year I sat in the jury waiting room at Southwark Crown Court, passing day after day in that sterile environment, drinking bad coffee and eating worse food. Thankfully, I was reading an insightful book that made the wait more bearable.
The author, David Brooks, is a shrewd commentator on the modern age, and so his recent book The Road to Character has been a runaway bestseller. It is excellent, but the fact that so many people are reading it reveals a great deal about a hunger in our society for a deeper way of life. Brooks speaks directly into that desire:
We live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to cultivate the inner life .
Indeed, there has been a radical shift in recent decades towards self-oriented existence. We crave attention, adulation, admiration. We define ourselves, and then present our lives to the world with pride (frequently bypassing the tiring work of doing anything truly meaningful). We are our own advertising gurus, but often what we broadcast is a mere shell designed to succeed in a world that rewards a glossy image more than a honed character. Brooks goes on:
You spend a lot of time cultivating professional skills, but you don’t have a clear idea of the sources of meaning in life… Years pass and the deepest parts of yourself go unexplored and unstructured. You are busy, but you have a vague anxiety that your life has not achieved its ultimate meaning and significance… You do not have a strategy to build character, and without that, not only your inner life but also your external life will eventually fall to pieces .
What has caused this malaise? Some would suggest part of the problem is that we have become the most individualistic culture the world has ever known, and in the process discarded many of the anchors that gave meaning to past generations: traditions, history, institutions, commitments to people and causes, and faith . Of course, there can be something hollow in serving archaic customs you no longer believe in, but the new world in which we all define ourselves has left many scratching their heads, unable to find a conclusive and satisfying definition of ‘self’ and of ‘meaning’.
In this age of millennial rootlessness, perhaps it’s no surprise there is a rejection of a our plastic mass-produced materialism (especially in style, clothing, and food) accompanied by a nostalgia for antiquated ideals – craftsmanship, quality over quantity, love of the specialist. But all too often, much of this cultivates superficiality rather than inner life. It’s not as though a perfectly coiffed moustache and a handmade leather boots could ever make a man deep.
With success-driven materialists to the left of us, and image-obsessed aesthetes to the right, how do we discover a life of meaning amidst all this noise? We must start by dismantling the false idols of our culture, beginning with the idea that achievements make you happy. Here, again, is Brooks:
The central fallacy of modern life is the belief that accomplishments… can produce deep satisfaction. That’s false. [Your] desires are infinite and always leap out ahead of whatever has just been achieved .
On top of that, so much of the desire for success is essentially people-pleasing. A life lived for admiration can only produce play-acting and insecurity, not the gravitas of a well-healed soul.
So what does it take to live a full life? Since we cannot operate in a void, then it’s not enough to merely acknowledge that life is about more than our achievements; we need answers.
The ancient Hebrews had a word for this kind of depth and meaning; they called it wisdom. It’s a word that seems to have passed from our collective conscience, but it speaks of knowing not only the what, but also the why — of understanding your place in this mad world.
Whilst elevating wisdom as something worthy of pursuit, the Hebrews added a haunting condition for attaining wisdom. ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ . That is to say, true wisdom and true meaning cannot be something purely subjective. It must be tethered to something outside of us, something bigger than us. We must first look to our Maker in order to understand the purpose for which we have been made.
Living in a world of pure subjectivism — in which we define meaning for ourselves, apparently out of thin air — leaves us dissatisfied, sensing an underlying instability as our desires and aims shape-shift with every whim of society. But to know, follow, and love God is to tether your life to the rock, the very source and arbiter of meaning.