They're on to something

I used to be a real political junkie. I worked many years as a legislative aide at the state and federal levels and did policy work for civil rights organizations. News was my entertainment and my distraction. I could never get enough, took pride in knowing everything important happening in the country, and geeked out on horse-race statistics during each election. One of the things I most looked forward to was listening to the weekly political wrap-up each Friday on NPR’s All Things Considered to hear how the left-representing pundit, usually E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, saw the week’s political developments vs. the right-representing pundit, usually David Brooks of the New York Times.

Although I definitely lean leftward in my policy views, David Brooks always struck me as a very measured and fair kind of conservative. While I usually didn’t agree with him, I sometimes did.

Fast-forward to midlife, and a few minor crises that led me away from the meaningless diversions of politics in favor of cultivating a more mindful, meaningful life rooted inwardly. I now spend my time in ways that further my mental health and my ability to put positivity rather than opinion and opposition out into the world. I ingest less news and listen less to NPR, but I still on occasion catch the Friday Week in Politics if I’m stuck in a car commuting.

If you’ve been reading David Brooks’s recent stream of columns in the NYT, then maybe you’ve also noticed him making a similar shift in his life that seems really fundamental. Turns out, this refreshed outlook and his new book articulating it was instigated by some issues similar to mine at around the same time, as he shares in this interview.

His writings aren’t always so political anymore, and when they are, it’s to point out how the decline in morality, civility, and sense of communal welfare and responsibility feed the current political dysfunction and greater national anxieties and hostilities. He has grasped onto the larger meaning of what we all are doing in this world, particularly in this country, and I love what he’s writing. His basic premise is that our uber-fixation on individualism, self-centeredness, and intellectualism—and not enough on the communal and emotional—has badly damaged the bonds of community we all need to survive, and has fostered the rise of a “me-first, me-only” mentality that makes us miserable and vulnerable.

Others have noticed this turn but not all are enlightened by it, as evidenced in David Brooks, let me respectfully suggest: Lighten up. Not only do I think that Robert J. Samuelson (whose pieces I read when I subscribed to Newsweek back in my junkie days) simply doesn’t get it, I think his resistance (fear?) proves exactly the point Brooks is making. There is a purpose and a goodness in trying to lift ourselves up and find true joy and meaning in our lives, yet the current ways of our country—our politics and policies, our national discourse, and our personal credos—continuously work at cross-purposes. We gloss over or deny this reality at our own peril.

Many of Brooks’s thoughts read to me like they were informed by one of my teachers, Lama Marut. Below I quote at length from both men. The point is that when we begin to search deeper within ourselves for meaning in our lives and in the world around us, some common truths emerge. I encourage you to explore these writings for yourself and note the overlap with a curiosity as to why that is.

David Brooks, from his piece Five Lies Our Culture Tells Us:

It’s become clear…that things are not in good shape… We’ve created a culture based on lies. Here are some of them:

Career success is fulfilling. This is the lie we foist on our young…Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that’s not true….career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.

Lama Marut, in his book A Spiritual Renegade’s Guide to the Good Life:

If we want to be truly happy, we need to detach from our ignorant, unrealistic expectations of changing, external things…Stop looking for happiness in all the wrong places! And by the “wrong places” I primarily mean The Big Five …

[Number 2 out of the 5: The Career] Just as believing that more cash and more stuff will bring you more happiness is setting yourself up for a fall, so too is the mistaken idea that your fulfillment and success as a human being derives from what you do for a living…

If you believe that your future happiness will come from a great new job or more promotions within your current profession, think again. First off, just as there’s no end to the pursuit of “enough” money or things, there’s never going to be an end to the pursuit of the hoops one needs to jump through to reach the “pinnacle” of any given career. There’s always going to be someone above you; there’s always going to be a higher level…

Your job is not your life! You are much more than what you do to make a living. Think differently…The working classes generally get this, so chances are if you’re unclear on the concept it’s because you identify yourself as a “professional” something or other…If you want to reduce your suffering, think about the job differently—as just what it is, a way to make a living, and no more—and this is how you’ll begin the process of letting go of this particular burning coal.

In his new book, “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life” (which I have not yet read but which he references frequently in his recent columns), Brooks refers to those who, in early adulthood, pursue and often achieve those initial “first mountain” goals (particularly related to career and relationships). But then they realize the ways in which their pursuit of those first-mountain goals hindered their personal satisfaction and fulfillment, thus prompting them to embark on their “second mountain” life’s work of finding inner peace through exploring deeper ethical and spiritual meaning in their lives.

Brooks again here (I’m quoting at length, but the bold emphasis added is mine):

Some of them achieved success and found it unsatisfying. They figured there must be more to life, some higher purpose. Others failed…These tragedies made the first-mountain victories seem, well, not so important. Life had thrown them into the valley, as it throws most of us into the valley at one point or another. They were suffering and adrift. Some people are broken by this kind of pain and grief. They seem to get smaller and more afraid, and never recover. They get angry, resentful and tribal.

But other people are broken open. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that suffering upends the normal patterns of life and reminds you that you are not who you thought you were…Some people look into the hidden depths of themselves and they realize that success won’t fill those spaces. Only a spiritual life and unconditional love from family and friends will do…

If the first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self, the second is about shedding the ego and dissolving the self. If the first mountain is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contribution.

On the first mountain, personal freedom is celebrated — keeping your options open, absence of restraint. But the perfectly free life is the unattached and unremembered life. Freedom is not an ocean you want to swim in; it is a river you want to cross so that you can plant yourself on the other side.

So the person on the second mountain is making commitments. People who have made a commitment to a town, a person, an institution or a cause have cast their lot and burned the bridges behind them. They have made a promise without expecting a return. They are all in.

I think we all realize that the hatred, fragmentation and disconnection in our society is not just a political problem. It stems from some moral and spiritual crisis.

We don’t treat one another well. And the truth is that 60 years of a hyper-individualistic first-mountain culture have weakened the bonds between people. They’ve dissolved the shared moral cultures that used to restrain capitalism and the meritocracy.

Over the past few decades the individual, the self, has been at the center. The second-mountain people are leading us toward a culture that puts relationships at the center. They ask us to measure our lives by the quality of our attachments, to see that life is a qualitative endeavor, not a quantitative one. They ask us to see others at their full depths, and not just as a stereotype, and to have the courage to lead with vulnerability.

Now Lama Marut (again, bold emphasis mine):

If you are not happy, who is it that you’re really thinking about? When you’re not happy, you are obsessed with only one person’s plight—your own. “What about me? I’m not happy. Is anyone going to help me? I’m not happy, so what are you going to do for me?” …

 In order to create a happy future, we must fight our own inclinations and resist the siren song of a culture that encourages and exacerbates our own worst tendencies. Living in the thrall of consumer capitalism, with its ceaseless greed and its deification of the ego, we find it hard to do anything but continually obsess about our selfish desires…A constant barrage of advertising spurs on this myopic concern with ourselves and our never-ending “needs”…

We have been seduced by a force that depends upon our perpetual dissatisfaction, our continual craving, and our compulsive acquisitiveness. We’ve thrown out the tried-and-true moral principles of our authentic spiritual traditions in favor of a secular ideology that ratifies our selfish inclinations…

“Me first”—in all the many forms it takes—cannot and will not ensure future happiness…At the heart of the karmic system lies an apparent paradox: We will get what we want only when we let go of our selfish wanting. Our happiness comes not by indulging or increasing our own egotistical cravings. It comes when we replace selfish desire with the desire that others be happy. It is our own stubborn ignorance that inverts the true secret of happiness. The way to achieve our own happiness isn’t to worry about ourselves all the time; it’s to be concerned about somebody else’s happiness.