I am worried about David Brooks.
I’ve been a pretty regular reader of the New York Times columnist since before he even came to the Times, going all the way back to his seminal 2000 book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, which revealed, to the astonishment of various residents of the East Coast media world’s upper crust, that the rich white people of the Clinton years were different from previous generations of rich white people, because they used their money to buy elite refrigerators instead of jewel-encrusted top hats.
In the years since, he has been a reliable producer of out-of-touch, tissue-thin pronouncements on the perils of our secularized, technologized 21st century lives, virtually all of which rightly can be interpreted as passive-aggressive nostalgia for what Family Circus comics told him “outdoors” might have been like when he was a kid. You could just about set your calendar by it: In a month of Brooks, you’d get the call to begin or continue a war with Iraq or Iran, the grasping attempt to paint some cretinous Senator or presidential hopeful as the intellectual heir to Edmund Burke, and then, at last, the decline-and-fall column. You’d see a headline like “The Slow Virtues” or “The Hollow Century” or “Why the Teens Are Despicable,” and you’d know ol’ Dave’s coffee shop was out of plain croissants a week ago and the barista had a nose-ring and he’d decided he’d witnessed the death of the Western moral tradition.
I think I got too comfortable automatically deploying this familiar way of understanding his occasional life-musings. I think that is why I missed a change in Brooks’s work. This change started some time ago, and subtly at first; I didn’t fully recognize it until very recently. Once I detected it, I went back and read through some of his older columns. Re-examined with fresh eyes, they are pretty alarming.
At some point around the new year, this powdered coffee creamer man abandoned his career-long mission of guessing at what the lives of common Americans are like, in favor of a new and more urgent mission, like an Antarctic explorer stalked by privation and death turning away from the far-off pole to race for the nearest hospitable bay, and with no less desperation. The bay is Us. We are It. He is trying to reach us before despair reaches him.
David Brooks is telling us something dark and sad—about loneliness and the search for connection; about social desolation and sexual frustration and sadness. Something deeply personal, about discovering, too late in life, that accomplishment and position and thinkfluence are no ameliorative for the rejection of your gross old-man wiener by cute millennials. Something not about what priorities he guesses Whole Foods Uncles will take into the voting booth in 2016, but about himself.
Oh God, I don’t think we have been listening.
Jan. 5, 2015: “The Problem with Meaning”
As near as I can tell, Brooks first abandoned the survey equipment and turned his face toward the equator with the publication of this column. Which, I mean, right there in the headline is the tentative outstretched hand of a man who has lost his moorings in the world. “What do we mean when we use the word meaning?” he asks.
You might guess that the nature of meaning would be too weighty a subject for illuminating in an 800-word newspaper column, but that is not the important thing here. The important thing, here, is the professional thinkfluencer—rounding into senescence, stung by the discovery that the inflation rate on smug, uninformed well-actually-ing in this newfound internet economy has rendered him a cultural pauper, coming to terms with the reality that the reputational spoils of a career spent inventing pseudo-sociological voter categories are as nothing to the perky youths—is using his newspaper column to wrestle with the possibility that he will never feel good about his life.
Happiness is about enjoying the present; meaning is about dedicating oneself to the future. Happiness is about receiving; meaningfulness is about giving. Happiness is about upbeat moods and nice experiences. People leading meaningful lives experience a deeper sense of satisfaction.
In this way, meaning is an uplifting state of consciousness. It’s what you feel when you’re serving things beyond self.
Here David hints at his misery as best he can. “I am miserable,” he says. “I do not have ‘upbeat moods’ or ‘nice experiences’ and my wiener has cobwebs on it. But maybe I suffer on behalf of posterity? Maybe I have meaningfulness?”
It’s a soothing notion, for a moment, but David cannot rest on it; it crumbles under the weight of his gloom and self-doubt.
There are no criteria to determine what kind of meaningfulness is higher. There’s no practical manual that would help guide each of us as we move from shallower forms of service to deeper ones. There is no hierarchy of values that would help us select, from among all the things we might do, that activity which is highest and best to do.
Because it’s based solely on emotion, it’s fleeting. When the sensations of meaningful go away then the cause that once aroused them gets dropped, too. Ennui floods in. Personal crisis follows. There’s no reliable ground.
This has gone to a very dark place! “My life has meaning, because I suffer dick webs for the future—but meaning itself is trash, because it does not prove I am better than Paul Krugman. I feel unmoored and unmotivated. I am in personal crisis. Please help me.”
We really dropped the ball here, guys.
Jan. 22, 2015: “The Devotion Leap”
When David Brooks’s marriage collapsed, reportedly, around the end of 2013, it should have freed him to enjoy the spoils of pundit-class celebrity. He would be Out There, America’s most eligible thinkfluencer, thinkfluencing a perky publishing assistant onto his elbow for mutually rewarding committed relationship action and/or love!
It has been a whole damn year since then, but where are the hot online singles? David Brooks sought them on their dating websites, but they were too busy ogling each others’ believable smiles and firm abdominal muscles.
People who date online are not shallower or vainer than those who don’t. Research suggests they are broadly representative. It’s just that they’re in a specific mental state. They’re shopping for human beings, commodifying people. They have access to very little information that can help them judge if they will fall in love with this person. They pay ridiculous amounts of attention to things like looks, which have little bearing on whether a relationship will work.
Apes! Intellectual lotus-eaters! This is a source of bitter disappointment for David Brooks. Why won’t they ogle his firm belief in the importance of social psychology? What is a “six-pack,” compared to a regular seat on the “Meet the Press” panel?
How he burns with resentment. The hot millennials do not want a New York Times columnist from whom to receive stimulating discourse about the moral and attitudinal deficiencies of the poor. No, they want a “not-repulsive person” who “does not look like a waxed talpid,” thanks to some cockamamie notion that “sexual attraction” might be a more fruitful basis for a relationship than “being lectured by a fusty boomer pissbaby about how masculine chivalry is the bedrock of civilization and both were destroyed by the sexual revolution.”
When you look at all the people looking for love and vocation today, you realize we live in a culture and an online world that encourages a very different mind-set; in a technical culture in which humanism, religion and the humanities, which are the great instructors of enchantment, are not automatically central to life.
I have to guess some cultures are more fertile for enchantment — that some activities, like novel-reading or music-making, cultivate a skill for it, and that building a capacity for enchantment is, these days, a countercultural act and a practical and fervent need.
Once again we have arrived at a place of incredible darkness and anguish. “I cannot endure this loneliness. Can anyone love me, an incurious congratulator of the past? I can only guess.”
Feb. 10, 2015: “The Act of Rigorous Forgiving”
Let’s set the mood, first.
Even very famous people can do self-destructive things in an attempt to seem just a little cooler.
And then just like that, you are trying to keep the death of your marriage out of D.C.’s public records.
Nominally David is writing about disgraced NBC news anchor Brian Williams, whose serial fabrications first received widespread media attention days before. But of course he has not discussed this with Williams; the self-destructive hunger for the regard of others he describes is his own. How it gnaws on his guts. He can never be thinkfluential enough to sate it. It is like a tapeworm that eats self-esteem, instead of chewed-up plain croissants! Day and night it feeds. A man can only take so much before he becomes desperate—becomes weak, becomes desperate and weak and lonesome in the undies—before, in a low moment, he—
No. Dave cannot say it. He needs forgiveness first. Can’t you ... can’t you just forgive him, baby? Can’t you just come home? Pre-emptively?
Martin Luther King Jr. argued that forgiveness isn’t an act; it’s an attitude. We are all sinners. We expect sin, empathize with sin and are slow to think ourselves superior. The forgiving person is strong enough to display anger and resentment toward the person who has wronged her, but she is also strong enough to give away that anger and resentment.
In this view, the forgiving person makes the first move, even before the offender has asked. She resists the natural urge for vengeance. Instead, she creates a welcoming context in which the offender can confess.
“She.” This is not David’s most subtle work, here.
Do we exile the offender or heal the relationship? Would you rather become the sort of person who excludes, or one who offers tough but healing love?
Mar. 3, 2015: “Leaving and Cleaving”
Shit is getting pretty grim for Dave. Dave has hit a new low. This column (which puzzled Adam Weinstein, understandably) is Dave at his most naked and confessional, and it is ... it is harrowing.
He is lost. Lost and alone. He misses her so goddamn much. Her, and the way things used to be. Sometimes he thinks maybe she, too, longs for what they had, wants to find their way back, together, hand-in-hand. They even bought a new house together! Other times, she will not even answer his text messages. Where has the love gone?
Such is the confused nature of our modern, technologized relationships, Dave tells himself. Even people in near physical proximity can be separated by cosmic digital distance. We don’t even “like” each other’s Face-Books! It’s like I can’t even fluence your thinks anymore at all.
If you are like me you know a lot of relationships in which people haven’t managed this sort of transition well. Communication that was once honest and life-enhancing has become perverted — after a transition — by resentment, neediness or narcissism.
Dave. No. What did you do. What did you do, Dave?
We all know men and women who stalk ex-lovers online; people who bombard a friend with emails even though that friendship has evidently cooled; mentors who resent their former protégés when their emails are no longer instantly returned; people who post faux glam pictures on Instagram so they can “win the breakup” against their ex.
Dave. Dave! What did you do.
The person left in the vapor trail is hurt and probably craves contact. It’s amazing how much pain there is when what was once intimate conversation turns into unnaturally casual banter, emotional distance or just a void.
Oh no. Dave. You didn’t. Please say you didn’t.
The person being left has to grant the leaver the dignity of her own mind, has to respect her ability to make her own choices about how to live and whom to be close to (except in the most highly unusual circumstances). The person being left has to suppress vindictive flashes of resentment and be motivated by a steady wish for the other person’s ultimate good. Without accepting the idea that she deserved to be left, the person being left has to act in a way worthy of her best nature, to continue the sacrificial love that the leaver may not deserve and may never learn about.
That means not calling when you are not wanted. Not pleading for more intimacy or doing the other embarrassing things that wine, late nights and instant communications make possible.
David Brooks sent his ex a dong shot. And then used his New York Times column to tell the world about it. Our man perches upon the edge of The Void, and hears its howl. Does it call his name? Or does he only want it to?
We could have picked up the phone. We could have stopped by with a chicken lasagna. We could have invited him to address our ideas conference for just under six figures. We could have listened. But we did not.
Apr. 3, 2015: “On Conquering Fear”
Like David Brooks, the ancient Israelites were haunted by fear. Bedeviled and bound by it. It enfolded their lives, not unlike David Brooks is enfolded by the filthy shower curtain he wears around the house like a toga while he sobs and eats ice-cream sandwiches and leaves anonymous nasty comments on Paul Krugman’s blog.
Their fear trapped them between their merciless oppressors on one side, and the unknown perils of terrible, terrible freedom on the other. David Brooks is likewise pinned in place, beset to the left and to the right: he fears the culture, its dissolution and laxity, its memes and its dread lord Kanye, and so he cleaves to the staid life of the thinkfluential nag—but oh, how he fears the loneliness and irrelevance this life has brought him.
If only he could defeat the fear. If only he could conquer it. But how? He interrogates the Torah for an answer.
Fortunately, one such method is embedded in the story that Jews read tonight as part of the Passover Seder. It’s an attractive technique because it involves kissing, talking and singing your way through fear.
“Somebody, anybody, please handle my wiener. Please.”
Zornberg’s emphasis on the role women play brings out the hidden, unconscious layer of the Exodus story. But it also illustrates an important element in the struggle against fear. We’re always told to confront our fears. Take them head-on. But, in the sophisticated psychology of Exodus, fears are confronted obliquely and happily, through sexiness, storytelling and song.
“It recoils from my touch.”
Apr. 25, 2015: “Love and Merit”
Where can Dave find a handhold for his self-esteem? His wife rebuffs him; the hot online singles reject his pick-up lines (“Is it cold where you are or are you just a person of low character?”); the culture’s eyes glaze over and it checks its Twitter mentions these days whenever he tries to explain the lost virtues of humility using his own work as an exemplar. He wallows in misery for the benefit of a posterity that will arrive too late to manipulate his crank.
Has he at least been a better father than those damn Gen-Xers?
[Today’s] children are bathed in love, but it is often directional love. Parents shower their kids with affection, but it is meritocratic affection. It is intermingled with the desire to help their children achieve worldly success. Very frequently it is manipulative. Parents unconsciously shape their smiles and frowns to steer their children toward behavior they think will lead to achievement. Parents glow with extra fervor when their child studies hard, practices hard, wins first place, gets into a prestigious college.
This sort of love is merit based. It is not simply: I love you. It is, I love you when you stay on my balance beam. I shower you with praise and care when you’re on my beam.
The wolf of conditional love is lurking in these homes. The parents don’t perceive this; they feel they love their children in all circumstances. But the children often perceive things differently.
Joshua, your father doesn’t even care anymore that you went to Indiana University instead of Yale. Point finger-guns at Kenyan children all you want. Just stop sending your father to voicemail. Your father is so lonely, and your voicemail always cuts him off before he can finish explaining why it’s all John Lennon’s fault.
Meanwhile, children who are uncertain of their parents’ love develop a voracious hunger for it. This conditional love is like an acid that dissolves children’s internal criteria to make their own decisions about their own colleges, majors and careers. At key decision-points, they unconsciously imagine how their parents will react. They guide their lives by these imagined reactions and respond with hair-trigger sensitivity to any possibility of coldness or distancing.
These children tell their parents those things that will elicit praise and hide the parts of their lives that won’t.
“Is this why you roll your eyes and close your Skype tab when I ask you what the millennials look for in an aging thinkfluencer?”
May 5, 2015: “What Is Your Purpose?”
David Brooks surveys the human condition—his human condition—and finds it in utter desolation. A vast, frigid, windswept waste. He has nothing and is nothing and leaves nothing behind.
Every reflective person sooner or later faces certain questions: What is the purpose of my life? How do I find a moral compass so I can tell right from wrong? What should I do day by day to feel fulfillment and deep joy?
At every step of his long journey he planted seeds of blinkered, glib, useless moral instruction, and the barren ice rejected them. Where can he go now? Why should he go anywhere? In the great emptiness there are no places to go—only places to die, to make by dying The Place Where A Lonely Man Fell, which the uncaring winds will scour away to featureless anonymity in their time.
There was a coherent moral ecology you could either go along with or rebel against.
All of that went away over the past generation or two.
We drift in the emptiness. All is arbitrary. All folly. Our wieners the punchlines of cruel jokes told by dead gods in languages we forsook.
The old days when gray-haired sages had all the answers about the ultimate issues of life are over.
“Don’t look to me for answers anymore. The nothing I know I take to my bottomless grave, which is nowhere.”
As a result, many feel lost or overwhelmed. They feel a hunger to live meaningfully, but they don’t know the right questions to ask, the right vocabulary to use, the right place to look or even if there are ultimate answers at all.
Of what use is our vile “language”? We flap our face-holes and flatter ourselves that we communicate meaning, and yet the dick webs go undusted. Before the horror of The Void even a New York Times column might just as well be the hopeless, inarticulate wail of a loon.
Do you think you have found the purpose to your life, professional or otherwise? If so, how did you find it? Was there a person, experience or book or sermon that decisively helped you get there?
If you have answers to these questions, go the website for my book, “The Road to Character,” click on First Steps and send in your response.
The man literally created a form, on his website, for strangers to acknowledge his damn existence. For Redditors, gamergaters, and Deadspin commenters to tell him how to live. This is the measure of our failure to hear what Dave has been trying to tell us.
If you know David Brooks, please pay him a visit. Do not recoil at the sight of his shower curtain. Sit with him and squeeze his shoulder and tell him it is going to be okay. I don’t think he is doing so hot.
All the rest of you should go to his book’s website, click on First Steps, and sing him back to sunlight.
Photo illustration by Jim Cooke, source via Getty