November 29, 2011 · 2 Comments
By Marie Burns:
A month ago, David Brooks asked older readers to send him “life reports,” which he planned to share with New York Times readers. The aim, he wrote, was to help young people understand “how a life develops, how careers and families evolve, what are the common mistakes and the common blessings of modern adulthood.” With this goal in mind, Brooks has been publishing essays on his blog, and he ran “Life Reports I” in a column last week. Just as a reminder, here are the insights Brooks highlighted in Life Reports I:
Cheating on your wife can lead to divorce. Also, cheating on your wife makes you feel ashamed. If you drink too much, you might cheat on your wife, which has the aforementioned downsides. When a loved one dies, you will feel really sad. When a child is hit by a car, God is more likely to mend the child’s injuries than are doctors. (We do not learn why God let the driver of that car hit the child. Perhaps that will be a life lesson for another day.) When you yourself get sick, it’s nice to have friends and be cheerful.
I gleaned these pearls of wisdom myself from the original writings Brooks shared. For the most part, Brooks didn't spell out the implications of the vignettes he shared with his readers in Life Reports I.
Evidently Brooks has had second thoughts about that format. My guess is that he realized letting his readers draw their own inferences from the seniors' life stories was a little messy. It gave the rudderless reader a bit too much freedom to think for himself. So in “Life Reports II,” which Brooks cobbles together for today's column, he helpfully tells us what to think of his contributors' life experiences. According to Brooks, here is what you should know, young people:
Divide your life into chapters. Beware rumination. You can't control other people. Lean toward risk. Measure people by their growth rate, not by their talents. Be aware of the generational bias. Work within institutions or crafts, not outside them. People get better at the art of living.
Let's break these down, not necessarily in the order Brooks has chosen. (Warning: there's a reason Brooks ordered the lessons as he did. Brooks’ lineup hides a contradiction which Brooks cannot rectify. In the black-and-white World of Brooks, inconsistency and heresy and synonyms.)
We'll dispense with the self-evident lessons first: You can't control other people. No kidding. People get better at the art of living. No kidding.
Now, on to those life lessons that might challenge us or Mr. Brooks:
Be aware of generational bias. As far as I can tell, Brooks means we should cut our parents some slack. As Mark Twain put it, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” While this also gets a “No kidding” from me, some younger people probably haven't figured it out yet.
Divide your life into chapters. Brooks says the life phases which some writers defined were “somewhat artificial.” Still, he determined that people who divvied up their lives into chapters “had more control over their fate.” The evidence Brooks cites for this insight is that a man named Neil was unhappy. We don't know, of course, whether or not Neil and other unhappy writers divide their lives into chapters. Defining life's “chapters” was not part of the assignment. Being a fairly happy near-septuagenarian myself, I can't say that ascribing “chapters” to my life either now or as I transitioned from one phase (or circumstance) to another would have made me any happier then or now. But, go ahead, try it. If it works for you, that's great.
Beware rumination. Brooks touts the utility of self-deception: This credo counters Socrates’ dictum, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The Socratic method is to continually ask and answer questions in a quest for essential truths. The body of Brooks' own written and broadcast ruminations demonstrates he is not a truth-seeker but an ideology-peddler. Truth is a near-antithesis of ideology, so I am unsurprised that Brooks disapproves of self-reflection. If he thought about the misery he regularly tries to inflict on the millions of Americans he thinks should suffer under draconian conservative policies, he probably couldn't live with himself. Better not to think about it.
Lean toward risk. I take David Brooks to be a bona fide descendant of the original buttoned-down Brooks Brothers. Or even of the Brooks Brothers suit itself. “Lean toward risk” is good advice, as long as the risk is somewhat reasonable – that is, the risk-taker either has a shot at succeeding and/or won't lose too much if he fails. Brooks does not elaborate on this life lesson. He doesn't even offer any examples. In fact, he seems a little surprised by it. He calls the advice “trite” but “apparently true.” See David squirm.
Work within institutions or crafts, not outside them. “For a time,” Brooks writes, “our culture celebrated the rebel and the outsider. The most miserable of my correspondents fit this mold.” Now this sounds more like David Brooks. Indeed, he seems downright gleeful that “rebels and outsiders” are “miserable.” “Working within institutions” – that is, playing by the rules – is pretty much the opposite of risk-taking, which by definition pushes the envelope and bucks institutional boundaries and expectations.
If we are to believe that some of Brooks' happy correspondents were risk-takers and some always colored inside the lines – and I do believe this – then there must be another lesson here that Brooks doesn't share. That lesson is – what works for one person doesn't necessarily work for another. Moreover, what works in one situation doesn't necessarily work in a different set of circumstances. This fairly obvious life lesson seems to have alluded Our Mister Brooks.
In fact, in the concluding paragraphs of his column, we see how uncomfortable Brooks is with contradictory information. He is downright flummoxed. He cannot help you out, young people:
Finally, the essays present disturbing quandaries. For example, we are told to live for others. But one savvy retiree writes, 'Don’t stay with people who, over time, grow apart from you. Move on. This means do what you think will make you feel okay — even if that makes others feel temporarily not okay.'
Is that selfishness or hard-earned realism? That one you’ll have to answer for yourself.
And one last life lesson: Measure people by their growth rate, not by their talents. Brooks seems to misstate his message, but it's more of a Kinsley gaffe – an accidental revelatory moment. Brooks doesn't mean we should “measure” – or judge – other people, as the sentence implies. He meant to write, I think, “Measure yourself by your accomplishments, not by your innate abilities.” What his clumsy construction tells us is that he “measures people.” His exemplar for this lesson is a woman from Long Island. Brooks has “taken her measure” and found her not to be particularly talented. Despite her natural and circumstantial limitations, the woman persevered and, as a result, experienced “relentless self-expansion.” This is undistilled David Brooks. It is his condescending way of letting us little people know that life has rewards, even for us. No kidding.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com and until recently was a popular commenter on New York Times op-ed columns. A short time ago, she began boycotting the Times because of a change in Times policies that stratifies “trusted” and “mistrusted” commenters.