Anyone can be a hero

New York Times columnist David Brooks looks at how upstanding and outstanding people came to possess such strength of character in his new book

Mr Lee Kuan Yew braving the rain at the opening of the new People's Action Party branch at Pulau Bukom Kechil in 1966.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew braving the rain at the opening of the new People's Action Party branch at Pulau Bukom Kechil in 1966. ST PHOTO: MAK KIAN SENG
The Road To Character by David Brooks
The Road To Character by David BrooksPHOTO: ST FILE



By David Brooks

Penguin Allen Lane/ hardback/320 pages/$27.82 with GST from Books Kinokuniya or on loan from the National Library Board under the call number English 179.9 BRO

August is the month in which Singaporeans marvel anew at the steel and moral fibre of their founding fathers.

So much has been said, written and read about how the late Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, Lim Kim San, Hon Sui Sen and their comrades eyeballed the odds they were up against - and pushed on to shape an enviable country which their people could proudly call home.

Yet, while the trials and triumphs of these heroes are now legendary, most people still wonder: How exactly do people like them come to have such strength of character?

The New York Times columnist David Brooks ponders such a question in this book, which is a series of essays on morality, wrought from the improbable life stories of 12 upstanding, and outstanding, human beings. Among them are the English novelist George Eliot, the Catholic social reformer Dorothy Day and the American footballer Johnny Unitas.

Regular readers of Brooks' writings have long known him as one of the few journalists today championing such unfashionable subjects as a return to values, the importance of compassion and why it is difficult to be decent.

  • Live Singapore Story on Aug 26

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He has, for example, drawn up a Moral Bucket List for people to tick off, just as they would a list of their coveted holiday destinations (the list includes shifting towards humility, confrontation of one's weakness and and experiencing an energising love). And every year since 2004, he has given out his self-styled Sidney Awards, to the most ethical reporters in political and cultural journalism.

Those who yawn at his pet subjects might still have heard of his most notable book, Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class And How They Got There (2000).

True to form, Brooks starts the book with a confession that, as a person, he tends to be shallow and vague about wanting to do good. But it is his other confession, at the back of the book, which startles: the book he had actually wanted to write was about how to make decisions. It was his book editor Anne Snyder who convinced him that he would do his readers a better service by finding practical ways to enrich everyone's inner life.

No matter. His focused, eloquent exploration of how humankind went from abject humility to what he calls the "broadcasting personality" of today is quite an education. For example, here he is on the difference between discipline and love: "Self-control is like a muscle. If you are called upon to exercise self- control often in the course of a day, you get tired and you don't have enough strength to exercise as much self-control in the evening.

"But love is the opposite. The more you love, the more you can love… Love expands with use."

The central plank of his argument is that pride swells people so, they live only for themselves, take more than what they need and crowd out all but those who serve their interests. All of these, as anyone can recognise, leads to what Brooks calls the Big Me culture.

Humankind, however, began as Little Me. He suggests that in the old days, most people died young. So life was seen as fragile and precious, and so it was safer to keep one's head down, keep the peace and keep going as long as one could.

But today, with vaulting technology, more medicines and easier living, Big Me stalks the landscape, ever willing to take on more risk, show off and enjoy life as much as possible. It was Big Me thinking that created the wondrous Age of Knowledge. But the backlash to that is a cool, uncaring and more morally ambiguous world.

Then again, he muses, Big Me has been in every age; it is just more pronounced in the Me-Me-Me world of the millennials. A prime example of Big Me in the past was St Augustine, who had been a hedonist to the hilt, but became an ascetic after finding that nothing he enjoyed or achieved made him happy. Navel-gazing made him so miserable that he would steal pears from a neighbour for the thrill of it.

Brooks' other tales of heroes are just as absorbing. For instance, who knew that the great English diarist Samuel Johnson became such a keen observer of street life because, ugly and scarred, nobody would give him a glance? So, relegated to the fringe, he gave the world some of the best insight on human nature and the times in which he lived.

There is also Frances Perkins, an American society lady of the mid-20th century who went into public service to improve the lot of workers after she watched scores of seamstresses jump to their death when their sweatshop caught fire and they could not run down the stairs fast enough.

Then there is American president Dwight Eisenhower.

A most decent man, he was belittled and verbally abused day in and day out by his superior, General Douglas MacArthur. But he repressed his rage, letting fly only in his journal thus: "He'd like to occupy a throne room surrounded by experts in flattery; while in a dungeon below, unknown to the world, would be a bunch of slaves doing his work … He's a fool, but worse, he is a puking baby." Outwardly, he did his best for his boss. That, says Brooks, is character.

So how can one build moral muscle? He suggests four ways:

  • Be a stumbler: Accept, and forgive, yourself for your mistakes. No one can be at his best all day, every day. But while you may stumble, you must also confront and tussle with the better and worse parts of your nature and choose what is right, instead of what is pretty, safe or easy. "Self-respect is produced by inner triumphs, not external ones," he stresses;
  • Live moderately: This does not mean having less of what you like. Rather, he says, moderating your life is about being able to adapt quickly to sudden changes in circumstances, and so forever balancing and keeping things in proportion. That is because there are no permanent solutions to tensions, only the best responses to them at a particular moment;
  • Get the support of trusted people: Change is hard and trying to do it alone is nigh impossible. So reach out to those who you know have your best interests at heart and get them to help you up when you fall; and
  • Understand that everyone is naturally perverse in some way: Once a person understands this, he is less likely to judge others starkly or quickly, and perhaps will grow not to judge others at all.

While he is a skilful storyteller, he sometimes expects readers to be able to glean his argument from his anecdotes. That does not always work. For example, he does not address a most important and delicate question, that is: How can one balance between self-reliance and self-centredness? There is a very thin line between the two, but Brooks does not go near it.

He also refers mostly to Western ideas and sometimes overthinks his subject. But stay with him; he is among the few who connect the dots ably between the clarion call to be good and the desultory hum of daily life.

Happy 50th National Day.


1 What must you ask yourself when you are just starting out in life?

2 What must you ask yourself when you are mid-way through life?

3 Why is joy necessarily fleeting?

4 Why are struggle and self- contradiction so crucial to building character?

5 How and why have most people come to laud those who are shallow and self-centred?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 02, 2015, with the headline 'Anyone can be a hero'. Print Edition | Subscribe