The Social Animal

Those of you who know me well, know that I have been a big fan of David Brooks since the end of 2001 – that’s coming up on ten solid years of fandom. Let me give you a little history.

David Brooks, signing my copy of On Paradise Drive in 2005

I was introduced to Brooks in my first semester at Covenant College where, in Dr. Green’s Christian Mind class, we read his excellent Atlantic Monthly article, “The Organization Kid.” It was a simultaneously bracing and humorous commentary on an undercurrent in American society that everyone knew was there but no one wanted to really talk about, or at least without equivocating: the misguided desire to create perfect adults out of perfect children in the incessant drive for material success and prestige.

I was hooked. I quickly began to take advantage of my dad’s Atlantic subscription and voraciously read his monthly column, plus my regular visits to Aunt Collyn’s allowed me to read his Weekly Standard articles – this was before the era of consuming all articles on the internet. I even tried to watch him every Friday night on PBS Newshour, if I had access to a TV, just to see what he had to say about that week in politics. It seemed there was no aspect of American society he couldn’t comment on, and comment on knowledgeably, with a healthy dose of wit.

In 2003 he came out with his first book, Bobos in Paradise, just in time for my parents to give it to me for my birthday. It quickly became one of my favorite books, and Brooks managed to turn “bobo” into a household word, even an answer to a Trivial Pursuit question. Bobo is short for bohemian-bourgeois – a new class of Americans, he argues, that try to meld conventional bourgeois values of upwardly mobile careers, polo shirts and middle-class sublimity with counter-cultural bohemian values of multiculturalism, organic food and ridiculously expensive eco-shower-heads. It was a brilliant read.

In 2004 I was doing an internship in Washington, D.C. and got to attend an invitation-only event where he was speaking at the White House. Not only did I get to meet my writing hero, but I even got my copy of Bobos signed and my picture taken. Exciting stuff for a college junior. Later that summer and onwards I went to different book signings, including ones for his second (not as successful, but still very good) book, On Paradise Drive, which told the story of future-focused life in the new American exurbs.

OK, by now you’re thinking: “When does Anna’s stalkerdom stop? Make it stop!” Don’t worry, it ended in 2005 – two years after Brooks began his full-time stint as columnist for the New York Times. I was surprised when he got that gig, but now it makes perfect sense. After all, he is labeled “every liberal’s favorite conservative.” And now, apparently, the White House phones him regularly to ask if they should be “worried.” That is how influential his column has become.

Six years and many columns later, he has finally come out with a much-anticipated new book: The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement. This one is quite a departure from his previous two. What it loses in humor (and I was disappointed by the lack of this), it gains in the maturation of his social scientific understanding. His previous two books were works of “comic sociology” (his phrase), but this one is a culmination of all his reading into works of neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and the unconscious mind.

Quite heady stuff, and because of that I am not going to attempt an all-encompassing review of the book. Part of the problem is – and given my admiration of Brooks, I hesitate to write this – I am not entirely sure what the central point of the book is, except to say that modern science, economics and management principles are not sufficient in determining what causes and motivates human behavior. Less measurable things such as connection, relationships, culture, emotion and the human unconscious are just as, if not more, important. If that is all that politicians get out of this book (and apparently, “they” are reading it all over Westminster), then that can only be a good thing!

I did just want to pick up on a few elements in the book, and point out a few missing elements which others have picked up on as well.

Firstly, Brooks points out the lack of connection between material well-being and happiness, something that has been documented in many recent studies:

(p 196) Living standards in the United States have risen dramatically over the past fifty years. But this has produced no measurable uptick in happiness. On the other hand, the United States has become a much more unequal society. This inequality doesn’t seem to have reduced national happiness either, even among the poor.

Winning the lottery produces a short-term jolt of happiness, but the long-term effects are invisible. The happiness gain you get from moving from poor to middle class is greater than the gain you get moving from middle to upper class; the happiness curve flattens out…People who place tremendous emphasis on material well-being tend to be less happy than people who don’t.

So what is it that brings happiness? Brooks would argue that it’s a complex web of things which doesn’t exclude material well-being, but includes things such as secure human relationships, magnanimity, living with a purpose beyond self-service, and moral commitments. (Eat that, Ayn Rand.)

But what’s unique about Brooks’s argument is that he puts “emotion and unconscious intuition at the center of moral life, not reason.” Moral knowledge is not just about “manning up” and doing what’s right based on rationality and logic. Here he talks about rationalist v. intuitionist assumptions:

(p. 282) [The intuitionist account] stresses moral reflexes, alongside individual choice; it emphasizes the role perception plays in moral decision making, before logical deduction. In the intuitionist view, the primary struggle is not between reason and the passions. Instead, the crucial contest is within…the unconscious-mind sphere itself. This view starts with the observation that we all are born with deep selfish drives – a drive to take what we can, to magnify our status, to appear superior to others, to exercise power over others, to satisfy lusts. These drives warp perception…The unconscious has to first dehumanize the victim and change the way he is seen.”

Brooks is (possibly intentionally) borrowing from the Pauline and Augustinian doctrine of original sin when he uses the phrase “we are all born with deep selfish drives.” Brooks, perhaps because of his Jewish background, has no problem with the idea of human depravity. However, he believes it’s possible to overcome this drive by stepping outside of oneself for redemption – here he describes the protagonist Erica’s reaction to her one-night-stand affair, in a Jekyll-and-Hyde-like soliloquy:

(p. 293) In the weeks after, when she thought about the episode [of having the affair], she became newly aware that it really was possible to become a stranger to yourself, that you always have to be on the lookout, and to find some vantage point from which you can try to observe yourself from the outside. She told herself a story about herself. It was the story of drift and redemption – of a woman who’d slid off her path inadvertently and who needed anchors to connect her to what was true and admirable. She needed to change her life, to find a church, to find some community group and a cause, and above all, to improve her marriage, to tether herself to a set of moral commitments.”

Well, here we come to some of the things that are missing from this book. The book takes us through the entire lives of two fictional characters, Harold and Erica. They end up getting married, but they don’t have children, and they have very little interaction with organized religion. Lacking these two things, they live a lifestyle which is still in the minority in modern American society– maybe they would have fit better in France? Erica has some interaction with her extended family, but throughout the whole book the sense is that they have no real roots. They each pursue their individual dreams and their marriage suffers as a result. How is this “the happiest story you’ll ever read”? Maybe Brooks is trying to be ironic, showing that we don’t always act on what we know and believe to be true? I’m not sure. I found the narrative of these two people strange and prefer his old style of creating different characters for different scenarios (my favorite is the couple in On Paradise Drive who buy a grill from Home Depot – read it yourself for some real entertainment).

But this, while not unimportant, is a relatively minor gripe. The book is full of fascinating insights and ideas. One of the most intriguing concepts he writes about is “limerence”:

(p. 208) As we go through our days, the mind generates anticipatory patterns, based on the working models stored inside it. Often there’s tension between the inner models and the outer world. So we try to come up with concepts that will help us understand the world, or changes in behavior that will help us live in harmony with it. When we grasp some situation, or master some task, there’s a surge of pleasure. It’s not living in perpetual harmony that produces the surge. If that were so, we’d be happy living on the beach all our lives. It’s the moment when some tension is erased. So a happy life has its recurring set of rhythms: difficulty to harmony, difficult to harmony. And it is all propelled by the desire for limerence, the desire for the moment when the inner and outer patterns mesh…

(p. 213) The longing for limerence doesn’t automatically produce perfect romances or easy global harmony. We spend large parts of our lives trying to get others to accept our patterns – and trying to resist this sort of mental hegemony from others. On a broader scale, people don’t just connect; they compete to connect. We compete against one another to win the prestige and respect and attention that will help us bond with one another. We seek to surpass one another in earning one another’s approval. That’s the logic of our complicated game.

This is very true – we really do “compete to connect” with one another. I know I do. We want to be the best we can be in the eyes of other people, but to do that we not only have to be perceived as better than other people, we have to be perceived as better than the very person whose admiration we long for. This is an insidious form of depravity.

One can’t help but notice that the character of Harold is written from the perspective of David Brooks himself – I mean, he loves big ideas and works for a think tank. Harold’s dying thoughts at the end of the book are a sort of ode to the unconscious:

(p. 373) Harold tried and failed to see into the tangle of connections, the unconscious region, which he came to think of as the Big Shaggy. The only proper attitude toward this region was wonder, gratitude, awe, and humility. Some people think they are the dictators of their own life. Some believe the self is an inert wooden ship to be steered by a captain at the helm. But Harold had come to see that his conscious self – the voice in his head – was more a servant than a master. It emerged from the hidden kingdom and existed to nourish, edit, restrain, attend, refine, and deepen the soul within.

It’s almost scary to think that our conscious thoughts could be servants to our unconscious self, a self that seems so hidden to us. However, the research that has come out in the past few decades has shed some light on this part of our brains, and Brooks does a solid job of bringing it together into one very readable, if ambitious, book.

For those of you still reading, below is a great example of why I love David Brooks’s writing – a description of Harold’s high-school English teacher:

(p. 79) When Harold met her, she was in her late twenties and teaching English. She listened to Feist, Yael Naim, and the Arcade Fire. She read Dave Eggers and Jonathan Franzen. She was addicted to hand sanitizer and Diet Coke. She wore her hair too long and too natural, to show she wasn’t on the job interview/law associate career track. She loved scarves and wrote letters longhand…

Before long she became matchmaker. She decided it was her role in life to look deep into her students’ souls, diagnose their core longing, and then match that person with the piece of middlebrow literature that would uniquely change his life. She would stop her students in the hallway, and she would press a book into their hands, and with a trembling voice she would tell him, “You are not alone!”

It had never occurred to many of these kids that they were alone. But Ms. Taylor, perhaps overgeneralizing from her own life, assumed that behind every cheerleader, behind every band member, behind every merit scholar there was a life of quiet desperation.

And so she offered books as salvation. She saw books as a way to escape isolation and feel communion with Those Who Feel. “This book saved my life,” she would tell her students, one by one, in hushed whispers after class. She would invite them into the church of those who are redeemed by high-school reading lists.



Bite-size reviews of Think and Generous Justice

Generous Justice: How God’s grace makes us just

New York pastor Tim Keller tries to address a wide range of audiences in his latest book, Generous Justice – suspicious orthodox Christians, passionate younger evangelicals, agnostics. To all he tries to make the case that the Bible is devoted to promoting justice and therefore is a key part of the Christian faith.

At points in the book Keller is too ambitious in trying to address all the concerns of these audiences. But upon finishing the book it would be hard for any reader to not be convinced of God’s concern for the poor as laid out in the Bible, and his commands for his followers to live Christ-like, sacrificial lives for those less fortunate.

Think: The life of the mind and the love of God

In Think John Piper sets out to “help Christians think about thinking”.  Piper successfully ties together thinking earnestly about God and treasuring and loving him, arguing that the mind and the heart are inextricably linked when it comes to worship, studying the Bible and how we treat others.

However, Piper has a tendency throughout the book to get caught up in stale agendas and arguments to combat what he sees as the rise of relativism both within Christianity and society in general. He thus devotes two entire chapters to the subject of relativism, which could have been better used to write positively about the rise of scholarship within the Christian community in the past few decades.

Next up: A more thorough review of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas.

Challenging the Stereotypes: Three authors who joined the other sex’s conversation

I realize I haven’t blogged here in quite some time, and I really don’t want to turn this into a book review blog. Having said that, I’ve been reading voraciously and it’s difficult to not just write about it. I’ve recently finished reading Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof (and his wife Sheryl WuDunn) and Letters to a Diminished Church by Dorothy Sayers. I’m currently in the middle of The Death of Adam by Marilynne Robinson. While I wouldn’t say these books in and of themselves have anything in common, there is something about each of them that struck me while I was brushing my teeth. Each book is written by an author you would normally expect to be of the opposite sex from what they actually are.

Let me unpack that a little bit. Marilynne Robinson is already known for her outstanding achievement in writing sensitively from a man’s perspective in her novel Gilead. So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that she grapples with the heady issues surrounding philosophy, science, Darwinism, modernism, culture and Calvinism with verve and wit in The Death of Adam. Sayers was one of the Inklings, a group of men (save Sayers),  including Lewis and Tolkien, writing in the mid-20th century who met regularly to discuss literature. Sayers writes with authority on matters regarding the church’s move away from sound doctrine and society’s devaluing of good work, among other things. Of course, both Robinson and Sayers are known well for their fiction writing which is top-notch, but in their non-fiction writing they are not afraid to move beyond the expected “women’s issues” that so many Christian female (and also feminist!) writers feel they must write about. They also aren’t afraid to address the traditionally male areas of philosophy and science. And I am so grateful they weren’t, because we can inherit both their example and their work as a result.

Kristof, in his New York Times columns, has long been known for upholding the cause of women in the developing world. He takes it to a new level in Half the Sky, a vibrant, hopeful book which makes the case that the best way to lift the 2/3 world out of poverty is to help and educate women. In light of this, he is very careful to point out that he doesn’t think this is a “women’s issue” but in fact a general human rights issue that affects everyone, women and men. It is refreshing to read a book by a man that is so dignifying to women, and I credit him for it. In the process, however, he doesn’t bash men or preach at them, barking at them to take more responsibility, but makes his cause one in which everyone has a role to play, and points to both male and female heroes in his story. 

I would urge you to read all of these authors, not just because they are excellent writers, but because they are challenging the stereotypes of what women and men are “supposed” to write about. They show that anyone can be part of any conversation that society is having, as long as they have something worthwhile to say.

(For those of you who think that I am going a little heavy on the non-fiction, don’t worry, I’ve been reading plenty of fiction as well.)

1776 revisited

My Christmas read this year was 1776 by David McCullough. It’s a thrilling read about the year that turned the tides of history, setting the foundations for a new American nation and marking the beginning of the end of British rule there. Lauri found it in a British charity shop, mere minutes after I had remarked how much I had wanted to find a McCullough tome (either 1776 or John Adams) secondhand but held out few hopes of getting my hands on one in the land of King George.

I enjoyed the book tremendously – I haven’t studied early American history since my senior year of high school, and was happy to find that I recognized most of the places mentioned in the siege of Boston because my sisters now live there. I was intrigued to read about the attitudes of the Loyalists (many of whom lived in Boston and New York) who wanted no trouble with the king and saw Washington’s army as a bunch of rabble-rousers. I was also inspired by soldiers, often going cold and shoeless, trekking  miles through the night with no knowledge of where they were headed. Both King George and George Washington are treated with a fairness by McCullough who takes a more nuanced approach to their personalities than historical caricatures allow. I especially love McCullough’s extensive use of personal diaries in this book, particularly from teenage boys who were fighting with the rebels describing battle scenes.

Upon finishing, I couldn’t help but wonder (and I know this question has often been asked) if the war was really necessary to gain independence. Australia, for instance, gained independence in 1931 when the British empire transitioned into the British Commonwealth. It now enjoys special links to the UK, not least the occasional £10 flight deals from London. Even India was able to gain independence in 1947 without a war, although the partition between India and Pakistan that resulted from it displaced 12.5 million and led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. All this to say, if America hadn’t had the Revolutionary War, we would have ended up in the Commonwealth with the likes of Canada, South Africa, Australia and India.

But really…can we imagine that? So much of American politics and history comes out of that revolutionary period, those “times that tried men’s souls.” And that little thing called the Declaration of Independence, and then the subsequent writing of the Constitution. It doth stirreth my heart. So while a nice, cozy position in the UK commonwealth wouldn’t have been such a bad place to end up, it would’ve made for pretty boring history.

After the Prodigal Son Returns: A Review of Home by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson has a way with words that makes the simple sacred, and the sacred simple. Already acclaimed for her previous novels Housekeeping and Gilead, she does not disappoint with her latest offering, Home, which was published last year.

Home is set in summertime in Gilead, a sleepy, melancholy place in the middle of Iowa. We meet again the characters from Gilead but this time the story centres on retired Presbyterian minister Robert Boughton and his family. The book opens with Glory Boughton returning home to care for her aging father, leaving behind a long teaching career. Her loyalty to her father is unparalleled, and when her wayward but beloved brother Jack comes home for the first time in twenty years, it feels like the meeting of the elder and younger brothers in the parable of the prodigal son.

The analogy is not that straightforward, as we quickly find out. When Jack discovers that Glory was engaged to someone who took her money and was eventually found to be already married, he remarks, “I believe I have just been told that I am not the only sinner in this family.” Jack is an unemployed alcoholic, father of a late illegitimate child, and a rejected son-in-law, a résumé which doesn’t jive with the Protestant ethic of this small Iowa town. Glory and Jack were never close in childhood, but in adulthood they now find themselves starting over. Without homes of their own, they return to what’s familiar. While Glory easily fits into the routine, Jack battles to find acceptance in his hometown. He struggles particularly with his father, who loves him more than his other children but was gravely hurt by his long absence.

Home is a slow book. Robinson recognises that change does not happen overnight. It is often painful. Changing people want home to be a place that is always the same. Robinson keeps a steady tension throughout the book between change and sameness. It is Glory who ponders this tension often. She had dreamed of a home “very different from this good and blessed and fustian and oppressive tabernacle of Boughton probity and kind intent.” She wants to be a dutiful daughter and yet laments life’s lost opportunities. She describes how the Boughton children went to university and learned about societal change in the wider world, and then came back to Gilead to find every rock and tree in the same place. The décor in the Boughton home was always the same. Jack too hints that when he eventually leaves for good, he wants it to stay that way, even after Boughton dies and Glory inherits the house. Jack spends much of his time tending to the garden to ensure that it continues to produce what is has produced since his childhood. In the same way he keeps the barn repaired and fixes the DeSoto, his father’s old automobile. This stasis is his only sense of home.

Woven throughout the book are questions of God, faith and salvation. Glory’s faith is rooted in her loyalty to her family. Being at home compels her to keep to the rituals of praying on her knees, attending church and reading the Bible. Beyond the rituals, however, Glory has an understanding of God’s grace that searches after not only Jack’s soul, but her own as well. Robinson captures this longing for grace through Glory’s thoughts, inspired by the book of Romans: “How oddly holiness situated itself among the things of the world, how endlessly creation wrenched and strained under the burden of its own significance.” Glory’s sensitivity is such that she cries spontaneously when she finds deep meaning in a conversation, or when Jack does something that provokes her anxiety for him.

While Glory cannot control her tears, Jack suffers from nervous laughter.Through it we feel his uneasiness of being at home. Jack knows his father is dying and is caught between telling him what he wants to hear and being intellectually honest about his agnosticism. Jack wants total acceptance from his father, but his father wants to see proof that he is already changing his ways. One morning Jack doesn’t appear for breakfast. Boughton says to Glory, “Things don’t change, I guess. People don’t. So it seems.” Towards the end of the book, it seems that Boughton is back to where he was before Jack’s return – he is not even aware of his presence at the dinner table.

After a sometimes achingly slow narrative, the ending is surprisingly powerful. However, Robinson does not satisfy the reader with a full release of tension and the shalom of restored relationships. It seems she asks the question: what happens at the end of the parable of the prodigal son, after the feasting is over? In this God-filled yet broken universe, the path to the Father may be bumpy, even for those who have returned home. But as Boughton likes to say, “All bread is the bread of heaven.” On the journey, God’s good creation sustains us – a gift of new clothing, a gentle haircut, roasted chicken and homemade apple pie, and the re-discovery of a sister, a brother, a father, a son. As Boughton had always told his children, “He lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home.”

The Axial Lines of Augie March

I’m coming to the end of The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow, a coming of age story set during the Great Depression in Chicago. I knew almost nothing about the book before I read it, so I’ve been more or less enjoying the 20th century Huck Finn character of Augie March and his propensity to get caught up in the wild schemes of others – from joining a friend in stealing textbooks from stores and re-selling them to students, to following his girlfriend to Mexico to train an eagle to catch wild animals, to taking a job as a research assistant to a strung-out millionaire attempting to compose his penultimate book about rich people and happiness. So the following soliloquy that arises out of a typical dialogue with one of his seedy but well-intentioned friends made me sit up and take notice. (For his work as a research assistant he has been reading up on the works of Aristotle and others, so his sudden attempt to create a philosophy of his own life comes out of that experience, but in the context of the whole book is almost comical.)

I have a feeling about the axial lines of life, with respect to which you must be straight or else your existence is merely clownery, hiding tragedy. I must have had a feeling since I was a kid about these axial lines which made me want to have my existence in them, and so I have said “no” like a stubborn fellow to my persuaders, just on the obstinacy of my memory of these lines, never entirely clear. But lately I have felt these thrilling lines again. When striving stops, there they are as a gift…At any time life can come together again and man be regenerated, and doesn’t have to be a god or public servant like Osiris who gets torn apart annually for the sake of the common prosperity, but the man himself, finite and taped as he is, can still come where the axial lines are. He will be brought into focus. He will live with true joy. Even his pains will be joy if they are true, even his helplessness will not take away his power, even wandering will not take him away from himself, even the big social jokes and hoaxes need not make him ridiculous, even disappointment after disappointment need not take away his love. Death will not be terrible to him if life is not. The embrace of other true people will take away his dread of fast change and short life.

In a moment of self-reflection, Augie is rejecting the hapless life of his millionaire boss and seeking to get back to the “axial lines” which bring true fulfillment. What are these axial lines? It’s a mystery what exactly Bellow meant these axial lines to be, but at the very least Augie was momentarily rejecting the confusion and materialism of modern life. Augie decides that he wants to find a wife and have children, and start a home for children from troubled families and institutions. He has no desire to be a “god” or rule over others but to simply carry out the days of his life on the Illinois prairie. He would bring his blind mother and his brother George, the shoemaker, to live with him. All around him he sees people trying to hold their own worlds together, but he has come to the realization that “the world is held for you.” Why strive against that reality? All Augie wants is a place of his own where he can live a quiet life, accepting both joy and suffering as part of the common human experience.

But then his friend points out that Augie merely wants to be a “kind king” over his wife, his mother, his “half-wit” brother and all those kids. He brings him back to reality, claiming that Augie is trying to make up for his own father deserting their family, and also Augie’s own complicity in leaving his family behind. Augie responds by saying that you can find bad motives for anything, but that all he wants is something lasting and durable, where the “axial lines” are.

Augie March was written in 1952 so must be seen in the context of a young man trying to make sense of the world in the big, bad mid-20th century. However, I think that Augie is getting to the heart of something that is relevant for us today. He talks about not being to process all the information, all the news, all the events that were coming at him from every direction. Can we not sympathize with the angst that Augie feels? In a world full of good and bad things and everything in between, of information that zips by us second after second and then disappears, we seek something that is everlasting, complete and ultimately good. We strive to get to those “axial lines,” but perhaps they have been there all along, present in the world.

“When striving stops, there they are as a gift…” Saul Bellow had a Jewish background and thus was probably familiar with the use of the Hebrew phrase for “cease striving” that is used in the Psalms – literally, “let go.” Augie was searching for a peace in his life that none of his adventures had brought him, and that he didn’t see in the lives of the money-grabbers and two-timers that surrounded him. By letting go, his life would come into focus.