The lies our culture tells us about what matters — and a better way to live
Published on Jul 3, 2019
Our society is in the midst of a social crisis, says op-ed columnist and author David Brooks: we’re trapped in a valley of isolation and fragmentation. How do we find our way out? Based on his travels across the United States — and his meetings with a range of exceptional people known as “weavers” — Brooks lays out his vision for a cultural revolution that empowers us all to lead lives of greater meaning, purpose and joy.
So, we all have bad seasons in life. And I had one in 2013. My marriage had just ended, and I was humiliated by that failed commitment. My kids had left home for college or were leaving. I grew up mostly in the conservative movement, but conservatism had changed, so I lost a lot of those friends, too.
And so what I did is, I lived alone in an apartment, and I just worked. If you opened the kitchen drawers where there should have been utensils, there were Post-it notes. If you opened the other drawers where there should have been plates, I had envelopes. I had work friends, weekday friends, but I didn’t have weekend friends. And so my weekends were these long, howling silences. And I was lonely. And loneliness, unexpectedly, came to me in the form of — it felt like fear, a burning in my stomach. And it felt a little like drunkenness, just making bad decisions, just fluidity, lack of solidity. And the painful part of that moment was the awareness that the emptiness in my apartment was just reflective of the emptiness in myself, and that I had fallen for some of the lies that our culture tells us.
The first lie is that career success is fulfilling. I’ve had a fair bit of career success, and I’ve found that it helps me avoid the shame I would feel if I felt myself a failure, but it hasn’t given me any positive good.
The second lie is I can make myself happy, that if I just win one more victory, lose 15 pounds, do a little more yoga, I’ll get happy. And that’s the lie of self-sufficiency. But as anybody on their deathbed will tell you, the things that make people happy is the deep relationships of life, the losing of self-sufficiency.
The third lie is the lie of the meritocracy. The message of the meritocracy is you are what you accomplish. The myth of the meritocracy is you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love, you can “earn” your way to love. The anthropology of the meritocracy is you’re not a soul to be purified, you’re a set of skills to be maximized. And the evil of the meritocracy is that people who’ve achieved a little more than others are actually worth a little more than others. And so the wages of sin are sin. And my sins were the sins of omission– not reaching out, failing to show up for my friends, evasion, avoiding conflict.
And the weird thing was that as I was falling into the valley — it was a valley of disconnection — a lot of other people were doing that, too. And that’s sort of the secret to my career; a lot of the things that happen to me are always happening to a lot of other people. I’m a very average person with above average communication skills.
And so I was detached. And at the same time, a lot of other people were detached and isolated and fragmented from each other. Thirty-five percent of Americans over 45 are chronically lonely. Only eight percent of Americans report having meaningful conversation with their neighbors. Only 32 percent of Americans say they trust their neighbors, and only 18 percent of millennials. The fastest-growing political party is unaffiliated. The fastest-growing religious movement is unaffiliated. Depression rates are rising, mental health problems are rising. The suicide rate has risen 30 percent since 1999. For teen suicides over the last several years, the suicide rate has risen by 70 percent. Forty-five thousand Americans kill themselves every year; 72,000 die from opioid addictions; life expectancy is falling, not rising.
So what I mean to tell you, I flew out here to say that we have an economic crisis, we have environmental crisis, we have a political crisis. We also have a social and relational crisis; we’re in the valley. We’re fragmented from each other, we’ve got cascades of lies coming out of Washington … We’re in the valley.
And so I’ve spent the last five years — how do you get out of a valley? The Greeks used to say, “You suffer your way to wisdom.” And from that dark period where I started, I’ve had a few realizations. The first is, freedom sucks. Economic freedom is OK, political freedom is great, social freedom sucks. The unrooted man is the adrift man. The unrooted man is the unremembered man, because he’s uncommitted to things. Freedom is not an ocean you want to swim in, it’s a river you want to get across, so you can commit and plant yourself on the other side.
The second thing I learned is that when you have one of those bad moments in life, you can either be broken, or you can be broken open. And we all know people who are broken. They’ve endured some pain or grief, they get smaller, they get angrier, resentful, they lash out. As the saying is, “Pain that is not transformed gets transmitted.” But other people are broken open. Suffering’s great power is that it’s an interruption of life. It reminds you you’re not the person you thought you were. The theologian Paul Tillich said what suffering does is it carves through what you thought was the floor of the basement of your soul, and it carves through that, revealing a cavity below, and it carves through that, revealing a cavity below. You realize there are depths of yourself you never anticipated, and only spiritual and relational food will fill those depths. And when you get down there, you get out of the head of the ego and you get into the heart, the desiring heart. The idea that what we really yearn for is longing and love for another, the kind of thing that Louis de Bernières described in his book, “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.” He had an old guy talking to his daughter about his relationship with his late wife, and the old guy says, “Love itself is whatever is leftover when being in love is burned away. And this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it. We had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms had fallen from our branches, we discovered that we are one tree and not two.” That’s what the heart yearns for.
The second thing you discover is your soul. Now, I don’t ask you to believe in God or not believe in God, but I do ask you to believe that there’s a piece of you that has no shape, size, color or weight, but that gives you infinite dignity and value. Rich and successful people don’t have more of this than less successful people. Slavery is wrong because it’s an obliteration of another soul. Rape is not just an attack on a bunch of physical molecules, it’s an attempt to insult another person’s soul. And what the soul does is it yearns for righteousness. The heart yearns for fusion with another, the soul yearns for righteousness. And that led to my third realization, which I borrowed from Einstein: “The problem you have is not going to be solved at the level of consciousness on which you created it. You have to expand to a different level of consciousness.”
So what do you do? Well, the first thing you do is you throw yourself on your friends and you have deeper conversations that you ever had before. But the second thing you do, you have to go out alone into the wilderness. You go out into that place where there’s nobody there to perform, and the ego has nothing to do, and it crumbles, and only then are you capable of being loved. I have a friend who said that when her daughter was born, she realized that she loved her more than evolution required.
And I’ve always loved that.
Because it talks about the peace that’s at the deep of ourself, our inexplicable care for one another. And when you touch that spot, you’re ready to be rescued. The hard thing about when you’re in the valley is that you can’t climb out; somebody has to reach in and pull you out. It happened to me. I got, luckily, invited over to a house by a couple named Kathy and David, and they were — They had a kid in the DC public school, his name’s Santi. Santi had a friend who needed a place to stay because his mom had some health issues. And then that kid had a friend and that kid had a friend. When I went to their house six years ago, I walk in the door, there’s like 25 around the kitchen table, a whole bunch sleeping downstairs in the basement. I reach out to introduce myself to a kid, and he says, “We don’t really shake hands here. We just hug here.” And I’m not the huggiest guy on the face of the earth, but I’ve been going back to that home every Thursday night when I’m in town, and just hugging all those kids. They demand intimacy. They demand that you behave in a way where you’re showing all the way up. And they teach you a new way to live, which is the cure for all the ills of our culture which is a way of direct — really putting relationship first, not just as a word, but as a reality.
And the beautiful thing is, these communities are everywhere. I started something at the Aspen Institute called “Weave: The Social Fabric.” This is our logo here. And we plop into a place and we find weavers anywhere, everywhere. We find people like Asiaha Butler, who grew up in — who lived in Chicago, in Englewood, in a tough neighborhood. And she was about to move because it was so dangerous, and she looked across the street and she saw two little girls playing in an empty lot with broken bottles, and she turned to her husband and she said, “We’re not leaving. We’re not going to be just another family that abandon that.” And she Googled “volunteer in Englewood,” and now she runs R.A.G.E., the big community organization there.
Some of these people have had tough valleys. I met a woman named Sarah in Ohio who came home from an antiquing trip and found that her husband had killed himself and their two kids. She now runs a free pharmacy, she volunteers in the community, she helps women cope with violence, she teaches. She told me, “I grew from this experience because I was angry. I was going to fight back against what he tried to do to me by making a difference in the world. See, he didn’t kill me. My response to him is, ‘Whatever you meant to do to me, screw you, you’re not going to do it.'”
These weavers are not living an individualistic life, they’re living a relationist life, they have a different set of values. They have moral motivations. They have vocational certitude, they have planted themselves down. I met a guy in Youngstown, Ohio, who just held up a sign in the town square, “Defend Youngstown.” They have radical mutuality, and they are geniuses at relationship.
There’s a woman named Mary Gordon who runs something called Roots of Empathy. And what they do is they take a bunch of kids, an eighth grade class, they put a mom and an infant, and then the students have to guess what the infant is thinking, to teach empathy. There was one kid in a class who was bigger than the rest because he’d been held back, been through the foster care system, seen his mom get killed. And he wanted to hold the baby. And the mom was nervous because he looked big and scary. But she let this kid, Darren, hold the baby. He held it, and he was great with it. He gave the baby back and started asking questions about parenthood. And his final question was, “If nobody has ever loved you, do you think you can be a good father?” And so what Roots of Empathy does is they reach down and they grab people out of the valley. And that’s what weavers are doing.
Some of them switch jobs. Some of them stay in their same jobs. But one thing is, they have an intensity to them. I read this — E.O. Wilson wrote a great book called “Naturalist,” about his childhood. When he was seven, his parents were divorcing. And they sent him to Paradise Beach in North Florida. And he’d never seen the ocean before. And he’d never seen a jellyfish before. He wrote, “The creature was astonishing. It existed beyond my imagination.” He was sitting on the dock one day and he saw a stingray float beneath his feet. And at that moment, a naturalist was born in the awe and wonder. And he makes this observation: that when you’re a child, you see animals at twice the size as you do as an adult. And that has always impressed me, because what we want as kids is that moral intensity, to be totally given ourselves over to something and to find that level of vocation. And when you are around these weavers, they see other people at twice the size as normal people. They see deeper into them. And what they see is joy.
On the first mountain of our life, when we’re shooting for our career, we shoot for happiness. And happiness is good, it’s the expansion of self. You win a victory, you get a promotion, your team wins the Super Bowl, you’re happy. Joy is not the expansion of self, it’s the dissolving of self. It’s the moment when the skin barrier disappears between a mother and her child, it’s the moment when a naturalist feels just free in nature. It’s the moment where you’re so lost in your work or a cause, you have totally self-forgotten. And joy is a better thing to aim for than happiness.
I collect passages of joy, of people when they lose it. One of my favorite is from Zadie Smith. In 1999, she was in a London nightclub, looking for her friends, wondering where her handbag was. And suddenly, as she writes, “… a rail-thin man with enormous eyes reached across a sea of bodies for my hand. He kept asking me the same thing over and over, ‘Are you feeling it?’ My ridiculous heels were killing me, I was terrified that I might die, yet I felt simultaneously overwhelmed with delight that ‘Can I Kick It?’ should happen to be playing on this precise moment in the history of the world on the sound system, and it was now morphing into ‘Teen Spirit.’ I took the man’s hand, the top of my head blew away, we danced, we danced, we gave ourselves up to joy.”
And so what I’m trying to describe is two different life mindsets. The first mountain mindset, which is about individual happiness and career success. And it’s a good mindset, I have nothing against it. But we’re in a national valley, because we don’t have the other mindset to balance it. We no longer feel good about ourselves as a people, we’ve lost our defining faith in our future, we don’t see each other deeply, we don’t treat each other as well. And we need a lot of changes. We need an economic change and environmental change. But we also need a cultural and relational revolution. We need to name the language of a recovered society. And to me, the weavers have found that language.
My theory of social change is that society changes when a small group of people find a better way to live, and the rest of us copy them. And these weavers have found a better way to live. And you don’t have to theorize about it. They are out there as community builders all around the country. We just have to shift our lives a little, so we can say, “I’m a weaver, we’re a weaver.” And if we do that, the hole inside ourselves gets filled, but more important, the social unity gets repaired.
Thank you very much.
Notes and references
“Thirty-five percent of Americans over 45 are chronically lonely.”
This figure comes from an AARP Foundation survey published in 2018.
“Only eight percent of Americans report having meaningful conversation with their neighbors.”
It is difficult to trace these numbers back to a primary source. A Pew Center report stated that 52 percent of Americans reported trusting all or most of their neighbors in 2015. The same report stated that 39 percent of adults from the ages of 18-29 (Millennials) trusted most or all of their neighbors in 2015.
“… mental health problems are rising.”
To clarify, mental health problems are rising for specific demographics within the larger American population.
“The suicide rate has risen 30 percent since 1999.”
This figure seems to come from a 2018 brief from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“… 72,000 die from opioid addictions …”
The 72,000 figure was an estimate for 2017. More recent information from the CDC states that there were 70,237 deaths due to opiate overdosing in 2017.
“The Greeks used to say, ‘You suffer your way to wisdom.'”
While it’s difficult to find a direct literary source for this saying, Strophe 3 of Agamemnonappears to share its meaning.
“As the saying is, ‘Pain that is not transformed gets transmitted.'”
The preachings of Franciscan priest Richard Rohr often reference this message.
“The theologian Paul Tillich said what suffering does is it carves through what you thought was the floor of the basement of your soul, and it carves through that, revealing a cavity below, and it carves through that, revealing a cavity below. You realize there are depths of yourself you never anticipated, and only spiritual and relational food will fill those depths.”
This quote is generally attributed to Paul Tillich, however it is difficult to find its primary source.
“The idea that what we really yearn for is longing and love for another, the kind of thing that Louis de Bernières described in his book, ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.'”
The book is called Corelli’s Mandolin, not Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
“And that led to my third realization, which I borrowed from Einstein: ‘The problem you have is not going to be solved at the level of consciousness on which you created it. You have to expand to a different level of consciousness.'”
While this concept is often attributed to Einstein, it is difficult to find a primary source to corroborate its origin.
A TED Original Podcast: David Brooks on political healing
New York Times pundit David Brooks describes a plan to rebuild broken communities and offers actionable steps to live a more meaningful life. (Audio only)
David Brooks · Op-ed columnist, author
Writer and thinker David Brooks has covered business, crime and politics over a long career in journalism.
Chris Anderson · Head of TED
After a long career in journalism and publishing, Chris Anderson became the curator of the TED Conference in 2002 and has developed it as a platform for identifying and disseminating ideas worth spreading.
BOOK: The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life
Reproduced from: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0812993268/
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • Everybody tells you to live for a cause larger than yourself, but how exactly do you do it? The author of The Road to Character explores what it takes to lead a meaningful life in a self-centered world.
Every so often, you meet people who radiate joy — who seem to know why they were put on this earth, who glow with a kind of inner light. Life, for these people, has often followed what we might think of as a two-mountain shape. They get out of school, they start a career, and they begin climbing the mountain they thought they were meant to climb. Their goals on this first mountain are the ones our culture endorses: to be a success, to make your mark, to experience personal happiness. But when they get to the top of that mountain, something happens. They look around and find the view . . . unsatisfying. They realize: This wasn’t my mountain after all. There’s another, bigger mountain out there that is actually my mountain.
And so they embark on a new journey. On the second mountain, life moves from self-centered to other-centered. They want the things that are truly worth wanting, not the things other people tell them to want. They embrace a life of interdependence, not independence. They surrender to a life of commitment.
In The Second Mountain, David Brooks explores the four commitments that define a life of meaning and purpose: to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community. Our personal fulfillment depends on how well we choose and execute these commitments. Brooks looks at a range of people who have lived joyous, committed lives, and who have embraced the necessity and beauty of dependence. He gathers their wisdom on how to choose a partner, how to pick a vocation, how to live out a philosophy, and how we can begin to integrate our commitments into one overriding purpose.
In short, this book is meant to help us all lead more meaningful lives. But it’s also a provocative social commentary. We live in a society, Brooks argues, that celebrates freedom, that tells us to be true to ourselves, at the expense of surrendering to a cause, rooting ourselves in a neighborhood, binding ourselves to others by social solidarity and love. We have taken individualism to the extreme — and in the process we have torn the social fabric in a thousand different ways. The path to repair is through making deeper commitments. In The Second Mountain, Brooks shows what can happen when we put commitment-making at the center of our lives.