Finding the Road to Character
Political and Cultural Commentator and Op-ed Columnist
October 22, 2019
Political and Cultural Commentator and Op-ed Columnist
October 22, 2019
I am going to talk a little about some of the things I have learned in life about how to lead a good, moral life and then talk about what kind of citizens I think we all need to be to have a good democratic culture and a healthy democratic character.
My life started out in unpredictable form. I grew up in Greenwich Village in the 1960s to somewhat left-wing parents. When I was five, they took me to a Be-In, where hippies would just go to be. One of the things they did at the Be-In was set a garbage can on fire and throw their wallets into it to demonstrate their liberation from money and material things. I saw a $5 bill on fire in the garbage can, so I broke from the crowd, reached into the fire, grabbed the money, and ran away. That was my first step over to the right.
When I was seven, I read a book about Paddington Bear and decided I wanted to become a writer. I remember that in high school I was already deeply into writing. I wanted to date a woman named Bernice. She didn’t want to date me; she wanted to date some other guy. And I remember thinking, “What is she thinking? I write way better than that guy.” But those were her values.
Then, when I was eighteen, the admissions officers at Columbia University, Brown, and Wesleyan decided I should go to the University of Chicago. The saying about the University of Chicago being a very heavy, cerebral place is “It’s a Baptist school where atheist professors teach Jewish students St. Thomas Aquinas.” They have T-shirts they wear that say, “Sure it works in practice, but does it work in theory?” So the university was super intellectual. And I was pretty cerebral in those days. I did a double major in history and celibacy while I was at Chicago.
But the big break of my life did happen there, which was that William F. Buckley, a prominent columnist, came to campus. I wrote a very mean parody of him for being a name-dropping blowhard, which he apparently found funny, because at the end of his speech, he said to the student body, “David Brooks, if you’re in the audience, I want to give you a job.” Now, sadly, I was not in the audience. But I called him up three years later, and the job was still there and I was set.
My career has had a pretty steady and very boring trajectory. I am a conservative columnist at the New York Times, which is a job I liken to being the chief rabbi at Mecca. I do a show on PBS called The News Hour, which is a very great show that was formerly hosted by Jim Lehrer. It is a show that I think has a lot of civility and great values. But it is for a certain seasoned audience. So if a ninety-three-year-old lady comes up to me in the airport, I know what she is going to say: “I don’t watch your show, but my mother loves it.” We are very big in the hospice community.
And then I started writing books and reading books. And as I have written more books and read more books as I have gotten older, I have gotten a little more sensitive, a little more feminine. I am the only American man who has finished the book Eat, Pray, Love,1 if you remember that thing. By page 123 I was actually lactating, which was surprising to me.
Four years ago I wrote a book called The Road to Character2; it is a book on character. And I learned that writing a book on character doesn’t give you good character and that even reading a book on character doesn’t communicate good character. But buying a book on character does give you good character, so I recommend doing that.
When you walk through life—the career side of life—you walk with a certain set of values. We take kids who start with the intensity of life and feed them into the college admissions process, which teaches them that status and achievement are at the core of life. Then they get out and lead the kind of life that I led, which was a life in the meritocracy, trying to make it, trying to achieve, trying to contribute, and trying to build up an identity.
This meritocracy does give us a lot of achievement. On the drive here from Salt Lake City, all these great companies line the highway. They are to be saluted and honored. But there are things in the meritocracy that, if you take unadulterated with no other moral system, are actually lies.
The first lie of the meritocracy is that career success makes you happy. I am the poster child for that not being true.
The second lie of the meritocracy is the lie of self-sufficiency—that you can make yourself happy; that if you can win one more victory, lose fifteen pounds, or get really good at yoga, you will be happy. If you ask people at the end of their lives what made them happy, it was not self-sufficiency; it was the moments of utter dependency, when they were utterly dependent on somebody else and somebody else was utterly dependent on them.
The third lie is that life is an individual journey. We buy kids this book called Oh, the Places You’ll Go!3 by Dr. Seuss. In that book there is an individual kid who has graduated from college, and his life is a series of experiences on the way up to success. He has no friends, he has no relationships, and he has no connections, because we think of life as an individual journey. If you give that book to immigrant groups, they hate it, because that is not life as they experience it.
The fourth lie is that you can create your own truth—that you have to come up with your own worldview; that truth is not something outside of you, locked into the natural order of the universe; and that truth is something you create on your own. If you tell people that they have to create their own truth, very often they will not be able to do that.
There are more lies of the meritocracy: The culture of the meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish and that you earn dignity and respect by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love: you earn your way to be loved. The anthropology of the meritocracy is that you are not a soul to be saved, you are a set of skills to be maximized. And the big lie at the head of the meritocracy that is really corrosive is that people who have achieved more are worth more than other people. If you want to tear apart your society, that is a good lie to introduce.
A few years ago there was an Israeli daycare center that had a problem: the parents were coming in late to pick up the kids. So they imposed fines on the parents who came in late. The number of parents who came in late doubled. That is because before, picking up your kid on time was a moral responsibility to the teacher so they could go home. Once the fine was imposed, it was no longer a moral responsibility; it was an economic transaction. The moral lens had been taken away and the economic lens had been put up. Our society does a reasonably good job in the course of daily life of taking off the moral lens and helping us see life through an economic lens, making us more morally numb.
That is certainly what happened in my life over the course of achieving far more career success than I ever thought I would. I was writing, and writing is a lonely profession. And then when I succeeded, I found out it was lonelier still. For The Road to Character, I was on a book tour for ninety-nine consecutive days, and I ate forty-two consecutive meals alone at an airport, on an airplane, or in a hotel. When your life is like that, you are completely off the rails. At about that time I saw a picture of Britney Spears, who at one point had gone kind of berserk and shaved off all her hair. And I thought, “Yeah, I could do that. I’m there.”
In the course of your career, just by drifting along and paying too much attention to the lies of the meritocracy, you come to desire the wrong things. You desire reputation and, at least in my case, you come to idolize time. You value productivity over people. Instead of settling into deep relationships with people, you always have a clock in your head: “Oh, I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that, and I’ve got to do that.” And so you sort of glide through people.
The wages of sin are sin. My own ditch came in 2013. My kids had left home or were leaving home for college. My marriage had ended. My friendships were in the conservative movement, and I wasn’t part of that movement anymore. I was living alone in an apartment, not having anybody over, trying to work my way through it. Workaholism is a very good way to avoid any spiritual and emotional problems. Because I wasn’t having people over, if you went to my kitchen and opened the drawer where there should have been silverware, there were just Post-It notes. And if you opened the drawer where there should have been plates, there was just stationery. I was just working. And I was suffering the logical end of the cultural meritocracy, which is to be detached from other people—a lone monad on the way up.
As I was suffering from this, a lot of other people were too: 35 percent of Americans over forty-five say they are chronically lonely. The largest-growing religious organization is unaffiliated. The largest-growing political movement is unaffiliated. Since 1999 the suicide rate is up 30 percent. Since 2011 the teenage suicide rate is up 70 percent. College depression rates have doubled in the last ten years. There are a lot of people who are very lonely, very isolated, and very afraid. And part of it is because of the culture of the meritocracy.
Part of it is probably because of the internet. The internet is a source of bad communication. We don’t communicate from our hearts and souls on the internet; we communicate through our egos, through comparison. My life is better than yours—that’s Instagram. Your opinions are stupider than mine—that’s Twitter. We are not programmed, and we weren’t created to communicate on this shallow level.
Somehow we have entered an age of bad generalizations. We don’t see each other well. Liberals believe that. Evangelicals believe that. Latter-day Saints believe that. All groups, all stereotypes, all bad generalizations—we do not see the heart and soul of each person, only a bunch of bad labels. To me, this is the core problem that our democratic character is faced with. Many of our society’s great problems flow from people not feeling seen and known: Blacks feeling that their daily experience is not understood by whites. Rural people not feeling seen by coastal elites. Depressed young people not feeling understood by anyone. People across the political divides getting angry with one another and feeling incomprehension. Employees feeling invisible at work. Husbands and wives living in broken marriages, realizing that the person who should know them best actually has no clue.
To me, the core democratic trait that we all have to get a little better at is the trait of seeing each other deeply and being deeply seen. It is a question of epistemology, of understanding each other.
John Ruskin, one of my heroes, said:
The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.4
When you think about it, there is one skill at the center of any healthy family, company, classroom, community, university, or nation: the ability to see someone else deeply, to know another person profoundly, and to make them feel heard and understood.
I have spent a lot of time thinking, “What is this skill? How do you get good at it?” It is not a detached intellectual skill; it is an emotional form of knowing. Our master here is Saint Augustine, who said that knowledge is a form of love.5 Love is a focus of attention. Love is a motivational state to learn more about another. Love is a drive to move in harmony with another. We separate the heart and the head, but Augustine never did that.
In the Bible there are many different cases in which people were misseen and misunderstood. In Luke, Jesus was not even recognized by His own disciples. In the parable of the good Samaritan, the Levite saw the injured guy by the side of the road, but he didn’t really see him. Only a Samaritan truly saw him. These cases in the Bible are always playing with different sorts of recognition.
The biblical word for “know” in Hebrew is yada, and it has dozens of different usages that cross our lines of head and heart, meaning everything from sexual intercourse to being loyal to someone to entering into a covenant with people. So the Bible is written in a language that puts deep knowledge and deep emotion at the heart of what we do.
I have tried to study people who are really good at seeing you and knowing you and making you feel known. I have an interaction at the Aspen Institute called Weave: The Social Fabric Project. We go around the country and meet people who are great at building communities or relationships. We call them weavers. They are geniuses at making you feel heard and understood—that is what they do. I look at how they do this.
One of the things weavers do is plant themselves down somewhere. They are not from anywhere; they are not cosmopolitans. They have picked one spot of ground that they really care about, and they know where they are from. They know who their people are. They are rooted.
There is a woman I met named Aiesha Butler. Aiesha was living in Englewood, which is a tough neighborhood in Chicago, and she was going to move out because it was dangerous and she had a nine-year-old daughter. On the day she was moving out, she looked across the street and saw a girl in a pink dress playing in an empty lot with broken bottles. She turned to her husband and said, “We’re not going to leave that. We’re not going to just be another family that left.”
Aiesha planted herself down in Englewood. She Googled “volunteer in Englewood,” and she just volunteered and volunteered. Now she runs the big community organization there, and if you go to the stores in Englewood, there are T-shirts that say, “Proud Daughter of Englewood” or “Proud Son of Englewood.” She made a commitment to a place.
One of my heroes is a guy I hope is a hero to you, a pseudo Messiah, Bruce Springsteen. Bruce Springsteen grew up in a place called Freehold near Asbury Park, New Jersey. His two first albums were not successful. His third album, Born to Run, was a big smash success. The next logical step for him would have been to go big and become a global superstar by making an album that could appeal to everybody. He did the exact opposite. He went back to Freehold, New Jersey, back to Asbury Park, New Jersey, and made a small stripped-down album about the thing he cared most about: the people in those towns and how they were suffering. He rooted himself down.
A few years ago I was in Madrid at the big football stadium of Real Madrid for a Bruce Springsteen concert. I looked at the kids in the concert, and they had these T-shirts that said “Stone Pony,” which is a bar in Asbury Park; “Highway Nine,” which is a highway that goes by Freehold; and “Greasy Lake,” which is a lake near there. Springsteen, like William Faulkner and so many great artists, created his own environment.
Weavers bury themselves; they root themselves down. And the audience comes to them. The audience wants to know that you have roots and are rooted down.
In the middle of that concert I saw 65,000 kids screaming, “Born in the USA. I was born in the USA.”
And I thought, “No, you weren’t.” But they came to see Springsteen.
Second, weavers are daring social explorers. One of my favorite expressions comes from psychology. It says that all of life is a series of daring adventures from a secure base.6 Weavers know who they are, and they have planted themselves down. They therefore have the security to go abroad. A lot of the weavers we admire love being the only person like themselves in the room.
There is a woman named Sarah Heminger who is a favorite weaver of ours. She grew up in Indiana. Her dad was in the church, and he found out that their pastor was embezzling money, so he reported it. Instead of getting rid of the pastor, the congregation shunned Sarah and her family. For eight years she was not invited to parties. Sometimes at Christmas parties at her own grandmother’s house, she and her brother had to sit in a different room because they were shunned. She knew what true isolation was.
Then she went to Johns Hopkins. As she was riding a bus in Baltimore, she saw some kids outside of school—young African American kids—and she thought, “I know exactly what they’re feeling. I recognize that isolation.” Sarah is now spending her life helping those kids—people completely unlike herself, a Midwestern white girl. But weavers get a thrill out of being with people completely unlike themselves and of making that human bond and being transparent.
The third strength of people who know others deeply is that they are emotionally transparent. A few years ago in 2015, my wife and I were invited over to the house of a couple named Kathy and David. Years ago, Kathy and David had a friend in the DC public schools who had a friend named James. James’s mom had health problems and other issues, and James often had nothing to eat and no place to go. Kathy and David said, “Well, James can stay with us.”
James also had a friend, and that kid had a friend, and that kid had a friend. By the time I went to Kathy and David’s house in 2015, there were about forty kids around the dinner table, and fifteen were sleeping at various houses. They had created a big, chosen family.
I walked in, a reticent middle-aged white guy, and I reached out to shake the hand of one of the kids. He said, “We really don’t shake hands here. We hug here.”
I am not the biggest hug person on the face of the earth, but we have been going back and have become part of this community over the past four years. And we hug forty people on the way in and hug forty people on the way out.
The kids beam emotional transparency at you, and they demand you to be emotionally transparent. They rewire you into a different sort of person. The reticent guy who is a little standoffish suddenly becomes reasonably good at being emotionally transparent by having emotion thrown at him.
I took my daughter there once. She said, “That’s the warmest place I’ve ever been in my life. And it makes you a much more open person.”
I was at a festival a couple weeks ago. They gave us song lyrics and said, “Pick a stranger in the audience and sing this song into that person’s eyes.” Three years ago I would have had a stroke. But now I can be a little more open because I have been trained by these kids.
The fourth thing weavers do that enables them to know others and be deeply known is to learn to use their suffering well. We all have moments of suffering, but we can either be broken by those moments or we can be broken open by them. Some people are broken. They build a fragile shell over the part of themselves that is hurting and they curl in. They are afraid to be touched. Those people usually lash out in anger and resentment. There is a saying that pain that is not transformed gets transmitted.7
But other people get broken open. They get more and more vulnerable and more open. They live their life at a deeper level. The theologian Paul Tillich said that moments of suffering interrupt your life and remind you that you are not the person you thought you were. They carve through what you thought was the floor of the basement of your soul and reveal a cavity below, and then carve through that and reveal another cavity below. You just see deeper into yourself than you ever knew existed, and when you see into those depths, you realize that only spiritual and emotional food will fill those voids. So you begin to live life at a deeper level.8
I had a friend who said that when her first daughter was born, she realized she loved her more than evolution required. I have always liked that because it speaks to that deeper level. We do some things to pass along our genes, but somewhere down in the depths of ourselves is some enchanted level that is where we can find our illimitable ability to care for one another.
One of the weavers we met in Ohio is a woman named Sarah Atkins. She had the worst thing happen to her that is possible to imagine. She was out antiquing with her mom. When she came home that Sunday evening and opened the door, she expected to see her kids and her husband. She said, “I’m home. Mommy’s home.” There was no response. A mattress was covering the doorway leading to the basement. She thought they were playing hide-and-seek, so she rushed down. She saw her husband slumped over. When she looked on the sofa, she saw her child with what looked like chocolate around him. She felt him, and he had gone cold. Her husband had killed their kids and himself.
Now she lives life in pure service. She helps women who have suffered from violence. She has a free pharmacy. She teaches at Ohio University. Her life is free openness and care. She is someone who has suffered unimaginably, and yet she lives with what Richard Rohr calls “a bright sadness.”9 She has seen the worst of the world, but there is a brightness and a humor about her, and there is agape—a selfless love that she gives out.
She told me, “I do it because I’m angry at him. Whatever he tried to do to me, he’s not going to do it. I’m going to make a difference in the world.” She is someone who lives her life openly, because whatever she had to lose, she has lost, and she has decided to be open through it all.
When you look at these weavers and at how good they are at seeing others, you realize that deep-seeing is so difficult. And yet, if you look around, it happens all the time.
I have a friend whose daughter was struggling when she was in second grade. The teacher said to her, “You know, you’re really good at thinking before you speak.” At that moment the girl felt known and respected and understood, and it turned around her whole year because the teacher had seen into her.
My wife, Anne, wrote a book, and one of the chapters in it is about a place called the Oaks Academy in Indianapolis. One of the little kids there was acting out, and the teacher said to him, “I’m wondering if your conscience has gotten really, really small.” The kid didn’t know what a conscience was, but he knew he didn’t want to have a small one.10 Great teachers have the ability to look and see into their students.
Great friends also have that ability, and great spouses have that ability. I have often thought of a time that happened a few weeks ago. My wife, Anne, was by the front door of our house, and the door was open. She happened to be looking at an orchid that we have by the front door. I looked up from whatever I was doing and just saw her silhouette as she pondered the orchid. It was one of those weird moments that spouses have, and I thought, “Wow, I really know her.” It was one of those moments when reality sort of stops and you become aware of a depth that exists in the ordinary moments of life and of the deliciousness of knowing someone deeply and also of the deliciousness when somebody sees you.
The connections that can happen between people are truly amazing. I had an acquaintance named Douglas Hofstadter, who is an Indiana University cognitive scientist. He was on sabbatical with his wife, Carol, and their two kids, who were then ages three and five, when Carol died suddenly. He kept a picture of Carol on the dresser in his bedroom, and he looked at it every day.
But one day he looked at it with special attention, and he wrote about what he sensed:
I looked at her face and I looked so deeply that I felt I was behind her eyes, and all at once, I found myself saying, as tears flowed, “That’s me! That’s me!” And those simple words brought back many thoughts that I had had before, about the fusion of our souls into one higher-level entity, about the fact that at the core of both our souls lay our identical hopes and dreams for our children, about the notion that those hopes were not separate or distinct hopes but were just one hope, one clear thing that defined us both, that welded us together into a unit, the kind of unit I had but dimly imagined before being married and having children. I realized then that although Carol had died, that core piece of her had not died at all, but that it lived on very determinedly in my brain.11
The book he wrote is called I Am a Strange Loop. His argument is that, as human beings, we are strange loops and our loops interpenetrate each other. And this is the most local thing imaginable, the most particular and most relational thing imaginable. And yet a vast society—330 million—depends on this local connection and hundreds and hundreds and millions of millions of these local connections. What does a nation have? It has some basic level of trust, that we can trust each other. It has some basic level of fraternity, that we basically understand each other at some level—some assumed common humanity. It has a common story.
In America our story is an Exodus story. We left oppression, we crossed the wilderness, we came to the promised land, and we tried to build that land. Moses was going to be on the great seal of the United States; Benjamin Franklin wanted him there. Martin Luther King talked more about Exodus than he did about the New Testament. For immigrant groups, for people in this church, exodus is the great story, and it is the great unifying story from our country.
We also need a great common project, things we do together. In Genesis, the creation of the universe is described in nine verses. In Exodus, the creation of the tabernacle goes on for 300 verses. Why does it go on for so long? It is because the Israelites were a fractious people who needed to be unified into a common people. And if you want to unify a people, they have to be able to work together on a common project.
My favorite description of a community comes from Jane Jacobs. She was living in the lower West Side of New York City in about 1960. She was upstairs looking out over the street from her second-floor apartment, and she saw a man angrily pulling a nine-year-old girl. Jane Jacobs didn’t know if it was a kidnapping or just a father disciplining his daughter. She was about to go down to check out the situation, just to make sure it was not a kidnapping, but as she was walking down, she looked out over the streetscape and noticed that the butcher’s wife had come out of the butcher shop. The man at the fruit stand had come out into the street. The locksmith had come out into the street. Jane wrote, “That man did not know it, but he was surrounded. Nobody was going to allow a little girl to be dragged off, even if nobody knew who she was.”12
That to me is what community is. It is a bunch of people looking after each other, a bunch of people seeing each other—and seeing each other deeply, taking the time to really enter into a relationship with each other, to depend upon one another, to buttress each other’s stories, and to buttress each other’s behavior.
Anne and I have a friend named Rod who lives in north Louisiana. His sister Ruthie died at a tragically young age. She was a schoolteacher, and everybody loved her in the town. She would do something for the town on Christmas Eve: she would go to the cemetery and put a lighted candle on every gravestone just to recognize the dead. She died just around Christmastime.
On Christmas Eve, Rod asked his mom, “Do you want to go to the cemetery tonight and do what Ruthie used to do? Put the candles up there?”
His mom said, “You know, I’ll do it in future years, but it would just wreck me right now. It’s just too soon.”
So they decided not to do it. As they drove across town to a family’s house, they happened to drive past the cemetery, and they saw that somebody else had put a candle on every gravestone. That is what happens in a community—the behaviors, the norms, and the gifts get replicated and spread around by people who are deeply engaged and deeply seeing one another.
To me, the end result of all this is a sort of joyfulness. You can be happy alone. You win a game, you get a promotion, you feel big about yourself. Happiness is the expansion of self. But joy is the merger of self. It is a kind of thing that happens when you forget where you end and something else begins, when you really are seeing deeply into each other.
I have a friend named Christian Wiman who is a poet living in Prague. One day he was writing his poetry at the kitchen table, and a falcon happened to land on the windowsill. He stared at this bird, and he was stunned by its beauty. He called to his girlfriend, who was in the shower, “Come here. You’ve got to see this!”
His girlfriend rushed out, dripping wet, and they just stared at the beauty of the bird. Then the bird, which had been looking at the street, turned and locked eyes with Wiman. Wiman and the bird just looked at each other. And Wiman said, “I felt my stomach crumble in. I felt I was looking into centuries.” He was having a moment with eternal creation.
His girlfriend understood the importance of the moment and said, “Make a wish, make a wish.”
Wiman wrote a poem about the experience, a stanza of which is, “I wished and wished and wished the moment would not end. And just like that it vanished.”13
What I have been talking about today is something that seems apolitical—it is not about democracy; it is just simply about seeing each other. And yet it seems to me that this is the glue that holds us all together. We are trying to do something that has never been done before, something that is phenomenally hard: we are trying to build the first mass multicultural democracy. We should give ourselves a little grace. It is a hard thing to do. But it only gets done if we take the time to look into each other’s eyes and sing those lyrics to each other.
Thank you very much.
© David Brooks. All rights reserved.
1. See Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia (New York: Penguin, 2007).
2. See David Brooks, The Road to Character (New York: Random House, 2015).
3. See Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (New York: Random House, 1990).
4. John Ruskin, Modern Painters, vol. 3, part 4, Of Many Things (New York: John W. Lovell, 1885), chapter 16, “Of Modern Landscape,” paragraph 28, page 286; emphasis in original.
5. See Brooks, Road to Character, 211; also 186–212.
6. See John Bowlby, A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development (New York: Basic Books, 1988), 62. Bowlby wrote, “All of us . . . are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figure(s).”
7. See Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation (New York: Crossroad, 2004), 37. Rohr wrote, “If we do not transform our pain, we will transmit it in some form.”
8. See Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955), 56; also 52–63, 161–62. See also Brooks, Road to Character, 94, 206.
9. Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 117; see also 118–25.
10. In Anne Snyder, The Fabric of Character: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Supporting Social and Moral Renewal (Washington, DC: Philanthropy Roundtable, 2019), 23.
11. Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop (New York: Basic Books, 2007), 228.
12. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), 39; see also 38–39.
13. Christian Wiman, “Postolka (Prague),” Atlantic, Culture, 1 January 2002, theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2002/01/postolka-prague/378272.
David Brooks, a political and cultural commentator and op-ed columnist for the New York Times, delivered this forum address on October 22, 2019.