New York Times columnist David Brooks has written a new book that stems from his curiosity about human character. What are the characteristics of someone with the kind of character we admire the most and what has happened to the development of character in more recent generations, he wonders. I’ve always enjoyed seeing how his mind deals with the social ills and movements that form our daily lives, and his insights into the emotional intelligence that is so often lacking. I haven’t yet read The Road to Character, but I had heard enough about it to want to hear Brooks speak last week at The National Presbyterian Church, a mile or so up the road from St. Alban’s. Apparently I wasn’t alone – the cavernous church was packed (and I saw more than a few St. Alban’s parishioners there, incidentally).
One of the things that led Brooks to write this book was the realization that in the course of his life and work, he was privileged to meet people, usually obscure people working quietly for good or passionately for their art in some corner of the world, who he found were lit from within with a goodness and a charisma that he found compelling. He wondered how he could be more like those he was drawn to. What were the common characteristics of those he found so admirable?
Like everyone else there that night, I would guess, I too thought about the people in my life that seemed lit from within – people who could walk into a room, without any self-awareness, and draw people into their orbit of kindness. People who make me want to be a better person. Those people are rare and dear, as you well know.
And then I went to the annual convention of The Diocese of Maryland this past weekend, and I met one of those very people. Someone lit from within, with a character that brought about goodness in the world, and inspired those around her to be better human beings. Many of you will know her work or may have met her – she is the Reverend Becca Stevens, founder of Thistle Farms in Nashville, Tennessee. It is a place of healing and love that helps woman coming out of lives in prostitution and addiction to move forward, learning new skills and creating new lives for themselves.
Her message to those gathered at the convention was about building something from nothing. The thistle, she reminded us, is a useless, prickly weed to many. In the Celtic language of flowers, however, it is a symbol of nobility of character. In the hands of those who work at Thistle Farms, this often unloved roadside plant can be turned into paper and other products, creating something from nothing, while building up a nobility of character in the woman who work there.
She told a powerful story about going to Rwanda and finding woman who had survived unimaginable horrors now working to create geranium oil on a farm there (with a grant from the U.S. government, incidentally). Stevens told the women that she would help them find a market for their oil in the U.S. But the story didn’t end there. She then talked of going to a women’s prison in Texas during the summer, where there was no air-conditioning and the woman worked outdoors while the guards rode on horseback, creating a combination of smells that you can only too easily imagine. She passed out a paper that told of the work she was doing, and one prisoner took her flyer, leaning back and placing it on her face. “What IS that smell?” she asked. Becca Stevens realized that the paper had been packed with bottles of geranium oil and had absorbed some of its fragrance. A moment of beauty, captured in scent, among a lot of ugliness. Something indeed from nothing.
I think the ability to form something from nothing must surely require a nobility of character. David Brooks came to much the same conclusion, I believe. A noble character is made up of curiosity, creativity, selflessness and compassion. And at the heart of it all, love.