In Search of Character: The Narrative Concept of Selfhood

[The following are prepared remarks from the keynote address at The Wheelock Conference at Dartmouth College on April 21, 2018.]

In Search of Character

What I’m going to attempt this morning is to lay a kind of foundation for our day of conversations with one another. To introduce a framework for talking about questions of purpose and sources of meaning.

Very few of us get out of our freshman year of college feeling like we know exactly what we’re here for. Most of us enter adulthood with more questions than answers when it comes to how to live meaningfully. We are all existentialists now.

Because what we don’t want is to wake up ten years from now and ask, “Why am I working this job? Why am I living in this place? What’s the point of all of this?” and not have a good answer. We don’t want to find ourselves trapped in a flat, characterless, suburban sprawl of a life. That’s how you get Fight Club. We don’t want to be faced with the question “Why?” and come up empty-handed.

So one reason I called this talk “In Search of Character,” is because character is a good word for what we’re looking for. We want a life that has texture, consequence, flavor. Character is the difference between a mansion and a McMansion. A beautiful old house­—with the arched doorways and the crown molding and the stained glass—has character, and that’s the kind of life we want to live in, so to speak. We want a life that’s like the leather-bound, inscribed first edition from Special Collections, not like the airport paperback I bought on the way up here.

And there’s a reason we’re all worried that we might not get that life with character: it’s actually incredibly easy to drift, to become what the novelist Walker Percy called “sunk in everydayness.” When you’re sunk in everydayness, you’re really only half living. The part of the human being that eats and drinks and sleeps is carrying on, but the part that questions the universe in order to learn its place in it is turned off.

Our society offers us a strong alternative to the question “why?”, namely, endless ways to keep us from ever having to think about it. That’s how you get Netflix. It’s also how you get the 60-, 70-, 0r 80-hour work week. If we can keep you busy enough, you won’t have the time or attention to reflect on whether what you’re doing really matters. If we can keep you distracted, you won’t ever look around and ask, “What’s the point?”

But none of you are distracted this morning. Against your better judgment, you all decided to come and give me your undivided attention. You’ve settled in to stare with me into the abyss, shoulder-to-shoulder for a group existential crisis.

The Problem with Values

I don’t know about you, but my education, at Dartmouth and before, only gave me bits and pieces of what I needed to ask about meaning. It basically gave me this disorganized toolbox of what are called “values.” Values were these abstract ideas about what I was supposed to want or to accomplish—so for example, one value was making the world a better place. Another value was not wasting my talents. Another was making a decent living. Another value was friendship, romance, all that love stuff. And I guess the idea was, that if you pursued your values, and they were the right values, then you’d have a happy, meaningful life.

But in my experience, values are only so helpful. They’re hard to apply. So when you approach a practical question, it can really be hard to say—in advance: “How much would this job make the world a better place?” And it can be hard to compare across different opportunities and different values. So maybe I decide, “That job really would make the world a better place, but I think I’d use my talents more fully in graduate school.” But if I really want cool friends, I should probably ditch all that and follow Rainbow Kitten Surprise on tour.

So values involve you in this very complicated calculus where you’re checking off different boxes and assigning weights and trying to figure out what the best return might be. And when you have a lot of options, like Dartmouth graduates tend to have, it can be paralyzing. It’s not a good framework if you’re at all indecisive.

Now, values are better than nothing, and I’m not proposing a revaluation of all values. That’s how you get… well, whatever you and your tribe blame Nietzsche for. But I am going to try and get us out of this endless calculus problem into a more user-friendly framework for pursuing meaning. It’s a framework that better reflects the human condition, the way we actually experience our lives.

Our Immersion in Language

Everything I’m about to describe for the next few minutes I owe to one of two sources. First is a person I’ve already mentioned, the novelist Walker Percy. And the other, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. I’m especially indebted to Chapter 15 of MacIntyre’s book After Virtue.

But let me begin with Percy and his collection of essays entitled The Message in the Bottle. Percy proposes a thought experiment that I’m going to paraphrase.

Imagine a Martian making his first visit to earth. This Martian is intelligent, even highly intelligent, and he communicates with his fellow Martians through direct mind-to-mind contact. He has a kind of ESP, where ideas and feelings pass seamlessly from one consciousness to another. Now this Martian encounters our world for the first time. He observes his first humans, and what does he notice? “They are forever making mouthy little sounds, clicks, hisses, howls, hoots, explosions, squeaks, some of which name things in the world and are uttered in short sequences that say something about these things and events in the world.”

For the Martian that uses ESP and has no need for language, this would be very strange, far stranger than it is for us.

We have a remarkably difficult time seeing language for what it is, because language is, as Percy says, “the very mirror by which we see and know the world.” But for the Martian who is observing human beings and our use of language from the outside, there is no doubt that they would see this as the most significant fact about our species.


This is where Alasdair MacIntyre comes in: the human being’s immersion in language and especially in the practice of conversation. Not only are we constantly exchanging symbols, we exchange special collections of symbols called “reasons.” We are capable of describing and explaining ourselves and having those explanations heard and understood. Because human beings are capable of describing their actions and intentions in words, our expectation of other human beings is that they will always be capable of providing such an explanation for any given action. What is possible becomes expected.

As conversational, rational beings, we hold other conversational, rational beings accountable for their actions. We expect them to able to provide a coherent account of what it is they’re doing, and why. This is not something we expect from rocks or trees or especially cats.

Whenever we cannot identify the meaning of an action, we are both intellectually and practically baffled. We don’t know what to think or how to respond. Here’s how MacIntyre illustrates this point: “[Imagine] I am standing waiting for a bus and the young man standing next to me suddenly says, ‘The name of the common wild duck is Histrionicus histrionicus histrionicus.’”

Now, I don’t have a problem understanding the sentence he has uttered. It’s a perfectly meaningful sentence from a grammatical perspective and happens to be true. But I haven’t the first clue why he has bestowed this information upon me. His action is unintelligible to me. My task now is to make this action intelligible, so I ask myself, “Maybe he’s mistaken me for someone who yesterday had asked him, ‘Do you by any chance know the Latin name of the common wild duck?’ […] Or perhaps he’s a spy waiting at a prearranged rendezvous and uttering the ill-chosen code sentence which will identify him to his contact.” If no explanation can be given to render his action intelligible, then I would have to conclude he is suffering from some form of madness.

Now consider this: not only do we hold other people accountable for their actions, we hold ourselves accountable too. We demand that our own actions be intelligible to us. People in the grip of despair complain that there is no compelling reason to do one thing versus another or to do anything at all. They characteristically describe their lives as “meaningless,” their actions and circumstances have become unintelligible to them.

Here’s what we have so far: we as human beings are meaning seekers because of our immersion in language. Our ability to engage in conversation and to give accounts for our behavior leads to a universal demand that our actions be intelligible. For our actions to be unintelligible is a sign of madness or a symptom of despair.


So if we are to avoid these bad ends, the question becomes: what is the source of intelligibility? What are the characteristics of an intelligible action? Under what circumstances will our actions and the lives which they constitute prove to be meaningful?

Let’s break it down by imagining some small actions. Suppose I take out three eggs and crack them into a bowl and add flour and sugar and butter. First off, if I did that right here, right now, it would seem very strange. It would be like the Duck Guy at the bus stop. That’s because one of the things that an action requires to be intelligible is an appropriate setting. Put another way, we need context to determine the meaning of an action or for an action to have meaning at all.

So just for a second, let’s go back to the Latin name of the common wild duck: if the speaker in that example was not some rando at the bus stop, but instead your biology professor lecturing on avian taxonomy in the classroom, everything makes sense.  So setting, as a kind of context, is very important for understanding the meaning of a person’s actions. It’s going to be very important for understanding your own actions.

But for now, imagine I’m actually at home in my kitchen. I take out three eggs and crack them into a bowl and add flour and sugar and butter. And even though I’m in my kitchen and it should be pretty obvious, you ask me, “What are you doing?” and I said, “I’m cracking eggs into a bowl and adding flour and sugar and butter,” you wouldn’t be very satisfied with my answer, and you’d probably think that I was a smart aleck, and you’d definitely be right. But—and this is important—if I only describe my outward actions, I have not adequately described what I am doing according to the general rules of human accountability. I have not yet given you my reason.

So we see right away that the question, “What are you doing?” comes with an embedded question: not only “What are you doing?” but “Why are you doing it?” In other words, I must attribute my action to some intention, some purpose for which I am acting. Now, I could describe this intention and even the setting of my action on a number of different levels. I might say, “I am baking,” or “I am making a cake,” or “I am preparing for a birthday party,” or “I am doing something kind for my mother.”

The Narrative Concept of Selfhood

So a picture begins to emerge: in order to render an action intelligible, we require two different kinds of context. First, we refer them to person’s intention and second, we refer them to the setting in which the actions occur. Hopefully this is starting to sound familiar to some of you English majors. When you take action and add setting and intention, what do you get? As MacIntyre points out, these three ingredients are essentially what is required for a narrative. Here’s the quote: “Narrative history of a certain kind turns out to be the basic and essential genre for the characterization of human actions.”

That is, actions are intelligible, meaningful, able to be accounted for to the extent that they can be placed within a coherent narrative. And conversely, intelligible actions are enacted narratives. The way to understand our lives is to see ourselves as characters in a story.

Let’s apply this to a familiar example: a student is sitting at a desk in the stacks, surrounded by books, typing away on a laptop. We take in her setting, and we could say that she is, “typing,” “writing a sentence,” “working on a research paper,” or “trying to finish her thesis before the deadline.” We get a clearer picture of her intention with each answer, as each contextualizes her action into stories that we recognize. But the most basic answer as to what she is doing, “typing a sentence,” is still an episode in the story of how she came to college, took a class in the History department, and fell in love with Second Empire France. In typing that sentence, she is enacting the narrative of how she would graduate cum laude and go on to graduate school and eventually become a professor herself. If it weren’t for the story of which typing each and every sentence of her thesis is a part, she wouldn’t be performing the action at all. As long as she remembers the whole story, she has a “Why” for every individual episode.

Furthermore, our senior is actually embedded in a series of narratives made up of all the individual acts that she and the people around her are performing. Every action brings some story to life, and the actions of others enter our story as well. As MacIntyre puts it, we are never more than co-authors of our stories: “We enter upon a stage which we did not design and we find ourselves part of an action that was not of our making.” So, writing her thesis one sentence at a time is not only a part of our student’s story. It’s also part of her family’s story and her classmate’s story and her College’s story. It is by finding our place on that communal stage that gives us a narrative to take up. If you only remember one quote from this talk, let it be this one. This is MacIntyre again: “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”

Summary of Concept

  • The way to find meaning in your actions and your choices is to situate them in a narrative. You have to be able to identify a story in which your action is a plausible episode. Otherwise, your action will appear unintelligible to you. And because you’re a rational, accountable being, that will be distressing.
  • When you go to make “what do I do next?” decisions, think about your life like an author would about a work-in-progress. The story up to now being what it is, what would be the most fitting next chapter? What would make for the best, the most interesting, the most beautiful story?
  • You are never more than a co-author of your life. You are a character in a play already in progress, over which you have only partial creative control. Learn to love the limits this imposes. And don’t forget that the key question is: “Into what stories have I already been drafted?”

Illustration: The Farmers Produce Company

Let me give you an example that hopefully ties a lot of these threads together. My family’s business, Clark Iron & Metal Company, was founded by my great grandfather. He got his start during the Depression with what he called his Farmers Produce Company. Middle Tennessee was much more rural back then; the town I’m from, Murfreesboro, was about a tenth of the size it is now. The whole countryside was small farms and the farmers would bring their produce into town and sell it on the square. But the commercial dairy business was growing, and that wasn’t a very efficient way to supply it.

So Charles (we’re all called Charles) became the reverse milkman. He would drive from farm to farm and buy milk or cream, a few gallons here and a few gallons there, then sell a full truckload at a time to the dairies. But while he was out at the farms, he’d also buy eggs and herbs and wool, and eventually he figured out you could make money off of almost anything. So he started buying “waste”: paper, rags, hides, and scrap metal. And so that’s how we ended up in the recycling business.

By the 60s, the business was Clark Iron & Metal, not the Farmers Produce Company, and scrap metal was our primary stock-in-trade. We kept buying paper and a few other recyclables, but we stopped buying food. Except for walnuts.

There are black walnut trees all over Middle Tennessee, and they produce a lot of really tough nuts every fall. Most people basically view them as a nuisance. The outer hull is this tough, green leathery thing that will stain your hands or clothes, and then the inner shell is really hard to crack. But they’re delicious, and they designed machines to hull and shell them a whole lot faster than you can do it by hand. So this was a great thing for us to buy. People who would otherwise pick up all those nuts and throw them away because they were too much work, could sell them to us, make a few bucks, and treat themselves to a black walnut ice cream.

So we kept buying walnuts for a long time, but in the 80s, the price fell and we finally quit that too. And by the time I started working at the yard during the summers in high school, we only bought metal. But we would get calls every year, from some old-timer or some old-timer’s grandkid, who remembered that Clark’s bought walnuts and had gathered up a bunch and wanted to know what the price was. Now if they were calling about paper or glass or any of the other things we didn’t buy anymore, we could always refer them to another recycler. But for walnuts it was just, “Sorry, nobody does that anymore.”

So, when I got out of law school and went back to work there, we were still getting calls about black walnuts, and the whole situation didn’t sit well with me. If our business stood for anything, it was “Let nothing useful go to waste.”

I had found myself in a narrative situation. I’ve come into this story. I found myself as a character in it with the power to shape how the next chapter of the story would go.

So back in 2015, I started experimenting with black walnuts. I learned to hull them and dry them and crack them. And I made my first batch of black walnut cocktail bitters and I bottled it and I put a label on the bottles that said “Farmers Produce Company.” And in 2016 and 2017, Clark Iron & Metal bought black walnuts again. We didn’t buy very many, but for those few who called, we could tell them that what they had had value and they shouldn’t throw it away.

And when we buy walnuts again this fall and I hull them and shell them and come away with green hands that will be a small way of enacting the narrative, of being true to the story of the Clark family in the city of Murfreesboro that doesn’t let good things go to waste.

And every day, when I go to work at the scrapyard and I make my calls and mess around with my spreadsheets, I’m enacting that narrative too. It’s one thread in a story that’s been playing out for a hundred years and that touches thousands of other threads in my hometown.

Application: “This School of the Prophets”

The story is personal to me, but I’d also like to talk about a story that we’re all part of together. By virtue of being here today, I know that you have been drafted into the story of Dartmouth College. Your story is embedded in the story of this institution.

So let’s talk about Eleazar Wheelock. I wear this ring every day. Not because it tells people I went to Dartmouth. The scrapyard is not the kind of place to rest on your Ivy League laurels. I wear it because it reminds me of part of my purpose, part of the meaning of my life. It says, “Vox Clamantis in Deserto”: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” It’s a quotation from the book of Isaiah, a prophet’s voice. And it captures what Eleazar Wheelock believed about Dartmouth. Towards the end of his life, he wrote this: “And it is my purpose… that this school of the prophets may be and long continue to be a pure fountain. And I do with my whole heart will this my purpose to all my successors.” When he founded Dartmouth College, Wheelock bequeathed a legacy to all who would come after him. And in case you don’t know, it’s a complicated legacy.

Here’s what you should know about the man himself. He was a Congregational minister, a real fire-and-brimstone Puritan. He preached at revivals during the First Great Awakening. He was in the audience the night that Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” To all appearances, he believed every word of it. In his letters and sermons, nothing looms larger than the fate of souls. Very pious, indeed.

He was also a true believer in the life of the mind, a genuine scholar. He won the award for academic distinction in Classics when he was at Yale. (We won’t hold Yale against him. I’m sure Dartmouth was his first choice, but nobody had founded it yet.) Later he turned his house into a school, students lived there with him, and he taught what we would still recognize today as the liberal arts.

Wheelock was also a man of the world. He was a farmer. He was a businessman. He was a politician. He believed that his students should master practical skills and disciplines. He believed that people’s lives could be improved through technology and medicine and economics, and that this humanitarian dimension was just as important for the graduates of his college to excel in.

What Wheelock believed about that “voice crying in the wilderness” was that through the work of his school, by educating students, rich and poor, Native and English, teaching them to integrate faith, reason, and vocation, that he was fulfilling a divine mission. That in educating the whole person, regardless of their background, and sending them out to apply their learning and share it with the world, his school was part of the divine plan that “every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill made low.” That was his prophetic vision.

But Wheelock’s vision was flawed and incomplete, and the institution he founded has throughout its history had to wrestle with those flaws. His mission to Native Americans was tainted by cultural imperialism and a failure to acknowledge that colonials were responsible for many of the problems he sought to relieve. But in words which were often better than his deeds, he laid a foundation for an inclusive institution, even if it took two hundred years for that part of the College’s narrative to begin to be enacted and even if it has yet to be enacted as it ought to be.

So this is the deposit that every generation of Dartmouth students and faculty and alumni have inherited. We have an educational mission, a vision of human flourishing and of Dartmouth producing the emissaries of this vision and equipping them to carry it into the world beyond. But where Wheelock failed to practice what he preached, we have the opportunity as his successors to be more faithful to the College’s story than those who came before. And the challenge to each generation has been to make this narrative more true to the world as it is and its enactment more true to itself. I believe that is the challenge for the Eleazar Wheelock Society.

Conclusion: A Vision for Modern Prophets

So, thinking practically, what are some marks of a person formed by the prophetic vision of Dartmouth College? I don’t mean this to be a comprehensive sketch, but I want to highlight a few things that I see that could be distinctive of the integration of faith, reason, and vocation at Dartmouth.

Let’s start with faith. At Dartmouth, beginning with Apologia, we’ve had a strong history of Christians from different traditions working together in a spirit of unity and mutual respect. We have shown that Catholics and Protestants, Christians from across cultures, worship styles, and theological opinions, can all be enriched by seeing what they have in common and the particular strengths of each of their backgrounds. As Dartmouth sends its prophets out into the world, I would hope that they would continue to model cooperation and fellowship among all believers.

Second, by always being careful in our presentation to those outside the Christian community, we have shown that the Christian faith deserves its place in the public discourse. We need never therefore be fearful or to feel embattled by the larger society. Instead, our people should have a quiet confidence that where the truth is spoken with gentleness and charity, it will not return void. Dartmouth is uniquely suited to prepare Christians who are secure in their faith in any environment.

Turning to reason, because we have recognized how hard it can be to get a hearing for Christian perspectives in the academic community, we have always held ourselves to a high standard of intellectual rigor. This standard should apply beyond the pages of Apologia, and beyond the bounds of this conference. It should extend to all we think and say. Our efforts should remind and encourage the college in its duty to foster an authentically intellectual culture, and our graduates should leaven the fad-driven, prejudiced, and un-rigorous intellectual environment outside its walls.

I continue to believe that there is no better tool for training the habits of rigor than the liberal arts. So many of our intellectual maladies can be traced to the hyper-specialization of knowledge and the failure to develop a broad general picture of the world and humanity’s place in it. Prophets cannot be mere technicians. We must seek broad horizons, even against the pressure to narrow our perspective.

Finally, with respect to vocation, the spirit of our founding demands that we serve people. We cannot be content merely to perpetuate systems, we must honor and defend the value and dignity of every individual. We must do so not from a stance of lofty condescension, but one of solidarity, of awareness and availability to those we serve. And second, we must serve the work. Whatever we do, we must treat our craft, our profession, as if it were an end, not merely an instrument. Recall that every action is meaningful only insofar as it is part of a story, and every craft and occupation and profession has a story. Learn that story, and honor all those who can before you and will come after you by pursuing the particular excellence of that work.

Whenever I read that “Vox Clamantis in Deserto” on my ring, it reminds me that I went to Eleazar Wheelock’s school for prophets. And that’s the kind of prophet that I want to be, and that I believe that Dartmouth can and should produce. That, for me, the integration of faith, reason, and vocation, is the true narrative of this institution.

We are all part of this narrative and members of this legacy. But like me, each of you has other stories that you are a part of, other roles that you have been assigned. Our challenge today, in conversation with each other, is to discover what those stories are, to explore how they are embedded in one another, and to encourage one another as we seek to write the next chapter. Thank you.


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