Even as a child, Dorothy Day was "filled with a natural striving, a thrilling recognition of the possibilities of spiritual adventure" (her own words). She is the next person discussed in David Brook's exploration of character. Despite her childhood spirituality, the saintly Day emerged from a life of struggle and a very bohemian young adulthood. Brooks uses her as an example of how character emerges from struggle and suffering.
Brooks uses the opportunity of recounting Day's life to explore the impact of suffering on building character. He makes an important point near the beginning of that discussion, "When it is not connected to some larger purpose beyond itself, suffering shrinks or annihilates people."
How do we grow from suffering? Brooks makes three points. First that it "drags you deeper into yourself." Suffering compels you to face your sins and weaknesses and won't let you get away with the easy answers. Second, it teaches us our limitations, what we can and cannot control. Finally, it teaches gratitude for the thinks we take for granted in good times.
Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don't come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that often lead to suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability and become available to healing love. They hurl themselves deeper and more gratefully into their art, loved ones, and commitments.
Three other points I want to comment on in this chapter.
It's hard now to recapture how seriously people took novel reading then, or at least how seriously Day and others took it--reading important works as wisdom literature, believing that supreme artists possessed insights that could be handed down as revelation, trying to mold one's life around the heroic and deep souls one found in books. Day read as if her whole life depended upon it.
I think I read like this, or at least something similar.
Second. He writes about Day's choice to live among the poor and experience their suffering and poverty. I was once drawn to such a Christian conviction , though I never acted on it. In the mid-Aughts I was reading much theology and Wendell Berry. I was influenced by Day indirectly and others. At the time I was coming out and worried about losing my calling as a pastor, I considered that if everything went south, then I'd choose some commitment to poverty. But, life didn't lead in that direction, and my calling was clearly different.
I contrasted Brooks' discussion of Day in this chapter with Kittlestrom's discussion of Jane Addams and her relationship with Hull House in The Religion of Democracy. In my blogpost on that chapter, I wrote about Addams's encounter with Tolstoy and how she ultimately rejected his ethical purity for a pragmatism she thought was more likely to solve problems. These days I tend in the Addams direction.
Finally. In this chapter I began to feel the constraints of Brooks' presentation and further admiration for Kittelstrom's figures. Brooks has yet to explore any figure who advocated for personal liberation. All of his characters are dominated by restraint. I know that is one of the themes of the book, but it's beginning to feel a little stifling. Consider the discussion of Thomas Davidson in Kittelstrom. In contrast to the submission of Day is this idea: " to grow their moral agency through nonconformity, resisting conventional authority and traditional standards and fixed ideas in several ways: by cultivating their individual understandings as active forces capable of shaping practice; by accepting uncertainty and partial truths as inevitable features of an unfinished, infinite, pluralistic universe."
Again, my coming out experience has emphasized the important of authenticity, liberation, and self-expression. Maybe a book on the important virtues from the queer perspective?
And, here was my last post in this particular series, on the virtue of moderation as expressed by Dwight Eisenhower.