“. . . there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live.”
- Ecclesiastes 3:12
As my two sons’ respective high school graduations approached – lo, many years ago – I invited each one to dinner for an obligatory father-son chat. In the course of those two evenings I asked each the same question, “What do you want to be?” Predictably each responded with his career choice du jour – lawyer, architect, or whatever. Yes, I replied, I appreciate what it is you want to DO, but I’m asking what you want to BE. Puzzled at first each thoughtfully considered what I meant, eventually arriving at the same conclusion. “I want to be a good person,” they said. Exactly what I was fishing for.
In his book The Road to Character, New York Times columnist David Brooks refers to the two versions of the creation story in the Book of Genesis, arguing that each version represents Adam in a different light. Brooks calls them Adam I and Adam II. Adam I is driven by his own abilities with a desire to “build, create, produce, and discover things. He wants to have high status and win victories.” Adam II, on the other hand, “wants to embody moral qualities . . . to have a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong – not only to do good, but to be good.” Brooks goes on to say, “While Adam I wants to conquer the world, Adam II wants to obey a calling to serve the world.”
Reflecting on those two evenings with each of my sons, I now realize that my question, “what do you want to be?” provoked “Adam I” answers because our education system and our culture in general – and if I’m honest, my own parenting – are so oriented around the virtues of hard work and personal achievement, and less so about the “Adam II” qualities of character and morality – not to mention failing to encourage young people to listen for and respond to higher callings.
My intention with my sons was in no way to diminish the importance of striving for personal achievement (nor do I believe it was David Brook’s intention). Rather, it was to encourage them to seek higher purpose in their life and work, whatever it is they chose; for fulfillment in life can only be found in serving God and doing good while we’re alive. For while in Adam I we strive to achieve all we can with what we have, in Adam II we are beckoned to pursue a higher purpose, or as my sons would say, to be a good person.