Sometimes we experience a transformative moment that changes our whole perspective on life. It’s that moment when you are forced to realize that your life hasn’t been all that meaningful and fulfilling and that you need to do something about it. I had this life-changing experience for the first time in August 2014 when I had to be admitted in the emergency room following a heart attack.
When the cardiac surgeon was finished with his examination post surgery, he looked me in the eye and said: “Roy, you’ve got a new lease on life. If I were you, I would most definitely do something more meaningful in this phase of your life.” I listened to the cardiac surgeon’s advice with some degree of interest without having the slightest inkling that his counsel would continue to haunt me two years later.
After my candid talk with my cardiac surgeon, I engaged in some soul-searching, reflecting on my life and how I could possibly make it more meaningful for myself. I realised rather painfully that I had spent most of my time and energy on my career in an effort to make a name for myself in my discipline. Although I had engaged in altruistic acts, it was by fits and starts. I did them only when it was convenient for me. I was acutely aware that I was living in a way that was far removed from a truly meaningful life that was deep and spiritual.
As time passed, I forgot the wise counsel of my cardiac surgeon while living my life of vague moral longings – vaguely wanting to be a good, moral being, vaguely desiring to serve some higher moral purpose. I realized that I was clearly lacking in the deeper understanding of how to live an inner life of depth and richness. Then another catastrophe struck me in May 2016, which turned my world upside down. This was when several pulmonary specialists diagnosed that a part of my right lung was damaged beyond repair; it needed to be taken out lest it should turn into a malevolent cancer down the road.
So, on 16 May 2016, I went through a complicated procedure to have a part of my right lung removed.
The post-operative phase was certainly a painful one from an emotional point of view. I had a difficult time accepting how frail and vulnerable I had now become. I also became keenly aware and at the same time quite fearful of my own mortality – something I had never experienced before. As I was dealing with my new health issue, it dawned on me that I probably needed to experience these misfortunes in order to learn from all this. It all became much too clear when I saw my thoracic surgeon for a follow-up consultation.
I was so taken aback at what the thoracic surgeon had to say that you could have knocked me down with a feather! It was almost like having a flashback going back to the day in August 2014 when I was being counseled by my cardiac surgeon to live a meaningful life. My thoracic surgeon didn’t spare a moment to remind me that I was in the twilight years of my life; that I should be grateful for being alive. And, most importantly, I must endeavor to make my life joyous and meaningful. It was truly an epiphany for me.
Ever since that talk with my thoracic surgeon, I have been thinking a lot about the difference between résumé virtues and eulogy virtues as David Brooks (2015) has explained in his thought-provoking book A Road to Character. Résumé virtues, for Brooks, consist of accomplishments that an individual enumerates in one’s résumé; it is about education, practical skills and all the success that one accomplishes in the material world. The eulogy virtues, on the other hand, are more profound and substantial. These are the virtues that are talked about in one’s funeral – the ones that exist at the core of one’s being – whether you are kind, honest, compassionate, loyal and so on.
During my journey to find a more meaningful life, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s (2016) book, Lonely Man of Faith, gave me a lot to ponder over résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. According to Soloveitchik, there are two kinds of individuals in this world embodying two drastically different kinds of perspectives. He labeled the two individuals as Adam I and Adam II. Adam I is focused on career. They are all about producing, creating and discovering things. They are concerned about status and the focus is about winning. Adam II, on the other hand, is about building an inner character – someone who has a strong sense of morals, who treats people with compassion regardless of their caste, creed, or class. They strongly believe in acts of altruism and are ready to sacrifice themselves for a noble cause. To put it succinctly, Adam I’s philosophy is about “Success” while Adam II relishes “Charity, Love and Redemption.”
Sadly, contemporary societies nurture and respect the Adam I type while overlooking all the rich qualities that Adam II brings. Our education system also reflects this trend because it is clearly oriented toward résumé virtues rather than the eulogy ones. We are socialized to think of ways that will assure us a great career and in the process often sacrificing or trivializing the need to cultivate our inner spirit. While many of us will agree that eulogy virtues are more important than résumé virtues, we cannot often resist the temptation of winning competitions and accolades. This desire to be an all-round success in our education and career is so strong that it has become an all-consuming passion for us. We are encouraged to find happiness and contentment by accumulating material objects while losing sight of more enduring virtues such as altruism, compassion and sacrifice for the common good.
These two life-threatening health conditions forced me to explore ways to make my life a more fulfilling experience. It probably sounds strange but, thanks to my ailments, I have now come to realize the fallacy of the belief that accomplishments by Adam I types can produce deep satisfaction. Adam I types are never satisfied; their desires are insatiable. Only Adam II types experience deep satisfaction. While Adam I searches for happiness, Adam II knows that happiness is temporary and contingent. Adam II believes that tapping into their spiritual realm will help them experience unalloyed joy and sublime love by realizing what Tagore describes as the “oneness of our soul with the world and of the world-soul with the supreme lover”.
In my quest for a more meaningful life, I have now come to appreciate the life of Adam II, which is about giving. These days I engage myself in various kinds of altruistic activities, which is a constant source of joy for me. Erich Fromm was absolutely correct when he said: “giving” is “the highest expression of potency … I experience myself as overflowing, spending, alive, hence as joyous. Giving is more joyous than receiving not because it is a deprivation, but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness”.
I have also come to realize that I need to surrender to something outside myself in order to receive strength within myself. It is a life where I am often called upon to fight the temptation to engage in a life whose sole purpose is to make money and accumulate things. It’s been quite a humbling experience to learn that success is not always edifying; that failure is illuminating because it affords me an opportunity to become a better human by exhibiting humility, reticence, temperance, respect and compassion. I also learned that in order to find myself I might need to lose myself. The life of Adam II, which I have chosen to embrace, often involves a struggle between the two Adams to find maturity and balance. The virtues that Adam II exhibits probably cannot be taught. It has to be experienced within the depths of one’s own heart. Sometimes this revelation may happen when we are least expecting it, as was my case.
As I wrote this op-ed, I didn’t want to imply that I have reached a spiritual Promised Land. Neither was I looking for sympathy from the readers. I wanted to share my experience believing that one probably can’t find “real” purpose by having a conflict-free, tranquil life. As Immanuel Kant reminds us, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” People who belong to this “crooked timber” school of humanity are fully aware that cultivating one’s inner spirit often results in the struggle against their own weaknesses. They know that “life is much bigger than we think, cause and effect intertwined in a vast moral structure that keeps pushing them to do better, become better, even when they dwell in the most painful confused darkness” (Brooks, The Road to Character, p. xv).
The writer is professor of communication studies, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.