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the dignity of restraint

by Judy
May 11, 2015

I am presently in the middle of reading David Brooks' latest book called, “The Road to Character.” It's very inspiring. Brooks speaks about what we value in our life and differentiates between what he calls “resume” virtues and “eulogy” virtues. For example, at the end of someone’s life, what do we value about that person? Is it what they accomplished in terms of career, status or fame (resume virtues) or is it much more to do with their character, their qualities of kindness, goodness, integrity; what kind of relationships they formed? (eulogy virtues) And in the end, he feels it is those moral qualities, the character of the person that matter to us most. He also feels they are qualities that have gotten somewhat lost in the midst of our modern-day values of achievement and success.

Looking back to some of the world’s great leaders and thinkers, Brooks explores, often through their internal struggles, how they built a strong moral character. One characteristic that is often mentioned with people like Francis Perkins, Dwight D. Eisenhower and A. Phillip Randolph, is this quality of restraint, renunciation and self-discipline – what could be called self-mastery. For example, when Brooks speaks about A. Phillip Randolph, who was one of the early civil rights leaders, he quotes from a colleague of his who said, “Randolph learned to sit erect and walk erect. You almost never saw him leaning back, reclining. No matter how enjoyable the occasion, you look around and there’s Randolph just as straight as if there was a board in his back.” This was a man of great strength and accomplishments – he strove endlessly, for example, to help organize the Pullman car porters who worked impossible hours and were poorly paid – and with a “fierce” integrity of being; a self-mastery over what Brooks called his inner demons. He was a “gentleman,” at all times – always conducting himself, publicly and privately, with dignity and “unfailing politeness.”

The stories told are inspiring. Brooks is very aware that these qualities of moral character often do not get so much recognition today. In my life what has been particularly lauded is self-expression, being authentic, expressing one's feelings and thoughts, not holding back and of course these are important, but they can go too far and easily become self-indulgent and narcissistic. On the other hand, being more private, restrained and self-sacrificing can also be limited and lack a certain humanity, but, revisiting them now, as Brooks does, they are qualities that deserve our attention.

I was thinking how these qualities, particularly the one of restraint, apply to my life now with helping to care for my 99 year old mom. My mom is becoming less and less engaged and in many ways more fragile…sensitive to the air, sound and touch that surround her. As my mother has changed and gotten quieter, so I have had to respond in kind. I can’t be so loud anymore; or jovial with her in the way I used to be. I lie by her side and tell her stories, simple stories of my day. Hold her hand softly. Kiss her more delicately. She can’t take too much activity, noise, energy, aliveness…it’s just too much for her now. Yes, we still laugh together, but it’s more low key.

The restraint is not coming from an inability to express myself, but out of an awareness of the negative effects certain responses would have. I have actually been inadvertently cultivating this restraint for some time. For example, sometimes – not often – I feel annoyed with my mom. She can be difficult at times and clearly is not the same woman she used to be – does not have the same reasoning powers. So I hold back – bear my own responses, but I don't express my annoyance. It would be too much.

This requires awareness, renunciation and a view to the effects of my actions. It requires really a change in myself – someone who is definitely of the Boomer generation.

So in my own small way, I am practicing this restraint; this holding back, for a bigger purpose and also coming to appreciate its value. I am certainly not perfect, but I do feel a shift is occurring whereby there is more space in me and less reactivity. And I get a taste of that profound dignity that comes from this kind of self-discipline and also an appreciation for qualities that can easily be overlooked in these admirable men and women from our recent past.

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