I’ve been thinking about religion a lot. I say “think”, rather than “talk”, because it’s a hard thing to talk about. Unless your look lends itself to religiousness – say, if you wear a headscarf, or a set of rosary beads – people generally tend to assume that you fall somewhere between the atheist and the agnostic side of the God debate. In general, people are very comfortable with dismissing any kind of organised moral credo as being – in the nicest possible way – beneath them.
And I get it. I get why you might be anti-religion. I understand that “sin" – and I’m a lapsed Catholic, so I know all about sin – is a very good way to control and restrict people. So it makes sense that, in so much of modern society, religion is a dusty boardgame that we only pull down off the shelf when we want to teach children about leprosy.
So, here’s my question: if you don’t have a rigid moral system that tells you that something – like lying, or cheating – is wrong, how do you become a person that is kind and honest, and altruistic? How do you become good?
Our world is set up to honour individual success, and businesses are set up to reward aggressive single-mindedness in their employees. In that system, “goodness” is a bonus, not a necessity. So, how do you become a “good” person, when social media and the world at large only celebrates people who are “bossing”/“owning”/“disrupting”/“crushing” it? It might seem like a fairly light, almost woo-woo question, but when Conservative governments are routinely praised for their ability to “get it done”, rather than “exhibit human decency”, how can it not be an issue?
All of this has been on my mind lately, but finally became something real when I listened to Sam Harris’ interview with writer David Brooks on his book The Road To Character. The episode was called “On Becoming a Better Person”. In it, Brooks speaks about how there are two ways in which we think of ourselves: our eulogy virtues, and our resumé (or CV) virtues.
While most of us would agree that your inner character is more important than outward success, most of us spend more time on our CV
Your eulogy virtues are how you want people to talk about you at your funeral: “she was brave”, “she was kind”, “she was a good friend”. Your CV virtues are, as Brooks puts it, “the skills you bring to the marketplace”. And, while most of us would agree that eulogy virtues – your inner character – are more important than your outward success, most of us spend more time on our CV than our eulogy. We chase the carrot. We seek immediate validation. We become “morally mediocre”, as Brooks puts it, and “figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be OK”.
And this is where the religion thing comes in. If there is one huge structure in your life – say, your job – that is constantly telling you to be ambitious, self-serving, even cut-throat, then surely something else should be on the other end of the spectrum, too? Surely there should be something else plopped on the other end of the see-saw, balancing it all out? And if that’s not religion, then what is it? Just an amorphous notion that you should try your best to be a noble person, when it’s convenient to do so?
Here’s an example: a few years ago, when I was in advertising, I was working on a product that was specifically aimed at mothers of newborn babies. I sat in a meeting where a strategist explained to the room that, in order for the product to be a success, we would have to pursue new mothers. Who, as she put it, “were already paranoid to begin with” and would be easier to convince into buying something they categorically didn’t need.
Even if you’ve never worked in advertising, I’m willing to bet you’ve had one of these moments – that moment where, in order to be a good employee, you have to be a bad person. This was my first big job out of uni, and therefore the first time I had to confront the fact that sometimes adults have to partake in some frankly evil shit in order to be successful. Not even to be successful – just to get along.
That’s why Brooks’ message hit me so hard, I think – because I’ve stopped feeling the way I did in that meeting room. Now, when I’m involved in a project that feels shady, or I feel like I have to be unpleasant to someone in order to “crush it” the way 2017 expects me to, I don’t feel much at all. That early-twenties Caroline who was disgusted by amorality in the workplace now no longer notices it.
But there is a way of getting out of that rut, and the answer isn’t to suddenly – as I’ve attempted in the past – to re-adopt your childhood religion, or try to find a moral centre within a new one. The trick is to focus on your weaknesses, rather than your strengths. On a CV, you make the most of the things you’re good at, and you demand to be rewarded for them. But in your eulogy, your loved ones praise you for the weaknesses you overcame. Its the difference between exploiting what comes easily to you, versus confronting what you dislike. Its about “making yourself strong in your weakest places”, and building character in the process.
There’s no quick fix to becoming “good”, I don’t think: its just a thing you have to try at every day. But even so, I might put a hold on my CV for a while, and look at my eulogy instead.