David Brooks on being deep

From Uri Friedman at the Atlantic:

The New York Times columnist argues that we focus on accumulating power, material wealth, and professional achievements instead of cultivating the kinds of qualities that will be discussed at our funerals. As Brooks phrases it, we emphasize “resume virtues” over “eulogy virtues.”

Expanding on a column he wrote in March, Brooks wove together various philosophical, theological, and biographical threads to define what it means to be “deep,” and how to lead a life of depth.

what does it even mean to be deep?

“I think we mean that that person is capable of experiencing large and sonorous emotions, they have a profound spiritual presence,” Brooks said. “In the realm of emotion they have a web of unconditional love. In the realm of intellect, they have a set, permanent philosophy about how life is. In the realm of action, they have commitments to projects that can’t be completed in a lifetime. In the realm of morality, they have a certain consistency and rigor that’s almost perfect.”

What qualities spur us to plumb the depths of our being? Brooks outlined five:

1.  Love

The love Brooks has in mind is of the transformational, unconditional variety. “It could be love for a cause, usually it’s love for a person, it could be love for God,” he said. Love issues the humbling reminder that “we’re not in control of ourselves,” and also “de-centers the self”—a “person in love finds the center of himself is outside himself.” It “complicates the distinction between giving and receiving, because two selves are so intermingled in love that the person giving is giving to him or herself.” Brooks cited the French writer Michel de Montaigne, who, when asked why he had such strong affection for a friend, replied, simply, “because I was I, and he was he.”

2.  Suffering

“When people look forward, when they plan their lives, they say, ‘How can I plan … [to] make me happy?'” Brooks noted. “But when people look backward at the things that made them who they are, they usually don’t talk about moments when they were happy. They usually talk about moments of suffering or healing. So we plan for happiness, but we’re formed by suffering.” Like love, suffering exposes our lack of control over our lives. But it also encourages deep introspection and equips people with a moral calling. “They’re not masters of their pain, they can’t control their pain, but you do have a responsibility to respond to your pain,” Brooks explained. He gave the example of Franklin Roosevelt, whose character was forged through his battle with polio.

3.  Internal struggle

“Here, I don’t mean the struggle involved in winning a championship, starting a company, or making a lot of money,” Brooks cautioned. Those who have depth are “aware that while they have great strength, great dignity, they also have great weakness. And they are engaged in an internal struggle with themselves.” Consider Dwight Eisenhower, who constantly tangled with his bad temper. “Internal struggles are the logic by which we build character,” Brooks said.

4.  Obedience

Brooks took aim at the common message in commencement speeches that students should turn inward to discover their passion and vocation. “If you look at the people who are deep, often they don’t look inside themselves. Something calls to them from outside themselves,” he said. They obey a cause. Brooks mentioned Frances Perkins, who watched in horror as people leaped to their deaths during the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, and then devoted her life to workers’ safety (she eventually became FDR’s labor secretary).

5.  Acceptance

Brooks also calls this “admittance,” seeking to shake the word’s association with exclusivity (think a nightclub or college). He likens the concept to the religious notion of “grace.” It is “unmerited, unearned admittance”—belonging to “some sort of human transcendent community.” Whereas Adam I wants to “work” and “sweat,” Adam II “simply accepts the fact that he’s accepted. Adam II, the spiritual side of our nature, stands against the whole ethos of self-cultivation, which is the resume side of our world. The ethos of scrambling, working, climbing.” Just as the journalist and activist Dorothy Day brimmed with gratefulness after the birth of her child, acceptance energizes the accepted. “They want to honor the people who gave them that gift and they want to pass on the gift that they didn’t deserve,” Brooks said.

A lot of the comments to the Atlantic piece were critical in a pretty superficial way (LOL).  That is, they accuse Brooks of telling us, basically, that we have to just wait and we’ll become deep, and there’s no quick or easy way to achieve it.  I think he’s saying something more along the lines of, it’s not quick or easy, but it’s achievable, and valuable, and so start working on it as best you can.



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