Tag Archives: dreams

David Brooks and the Search for Character

25 Apr

David Brooks is one of those talented people who has managed to get himself disliked in many circles. As a resident conservative at the New York Times, he has the unenviable task of defending a political outlook that few of his readers agree with, and makes such an effort to speak to them that he’s pretty easily labeled a Republican In Name Only by the right. Sometimes he pursues balance for its own sake to the extent that seems like one of those annoying kids yelling “yeah, but” on the playground, and his willingness to dabble in anything can lead him to be painfully wrong about some things, most notably foreign policy.

Such is life as a syndicated columnist, as he must churn out new ideas twice a week, every week. Much of his longer work is a far better sample of what his real interests and concerns are, from the acute diagnosis of upper middle class America in Bobos in Paradise to the social science-heavy study of life in The Social Animal. Brooks has been on a steady turn inward as his career has gone along, a process that culminated in his most recent book, The Road to Character. He’s long been capable of profound reflections on the costs of a lack of reflection on one’s own self—see the classic “Organization Kid” essay, which should be required reading for anyone entering an “elite” college—but only recently has he taken the step from detached takedowns of people who don’t do this to exploring what it means to actually do so. (His own recent divorce probably spurred this all along, too.)

I had the good fortune to attend a lecture by Brooks when he was in the early stages of conceiving The Road to Character, a 2011 talk called “The Era of Self-Expansion” put on by Georgetown University’s Tocqueville Forum. In it, he recalled a column he’d written earlier that year, an especially memorable piece for a soon-to-be college graduate in which he talked about how people find their callings. When I asked him about it in the receiving line, he admitted he’d somewhat made it up, but was impressed with how well it had resonated.

In the column, he blasts the tiresome myopia of the follow-your-own-dreams rhetoric so common in life advice today. However noble in its desire to tell us to be ourselves, these words foment a worldview that places the self and its ambition at the center of it all. The universe revolves around me, even as I purport to go forth and do “good” in the world, following the passions I have deemed worthwhile, in my infinite wisdom. And when I do try to do this, life inevitably gets in the way, whether in the form of my own limitations or the failures of other people or forces beyond my control. Suddenly, I’m powerless, and I’m pretty angry about it. Before long, I’m defeated, or perhaps more mundanely, I’ve discovered that the dreams of my younger self are no longer the dreams of my older self, and I’ve spent however many years chasing the wrong thing. The world refuses to cooperate and revolve around me.

The fruits of Brooks’ search don’t come in this takedown of selfishness, though. This is easy, and not terribly original. He needs an alternative, something else to aspire to. He now champions excellence over happiness, and the pursuit of something a bit more complete than just the self-expression celebrated in some of his earlier work. This drive doesn’t come from within, but from something that happens to people: one’s circumstances leave one with passions, and mark people by the things that jar them into awareness, whether as witnesses or the things they endure. It may seem like a small distinction, but it is essential. The turning points in life are rarely moments of great happiness or accomplishment, but instead in suffering and failure, and a desire to overcome it, perhaps even build off of it. This, and not the blind whims of dreams, defines who we become.

It is now fairly easy to go through childhood, and even much further into life, without ever coming face-to-face with this sort of adversity. It’s a triumph of affluence, I suppose, of good health, suburban living, wealthy schools (public or private), and other comforts that allow us to live out that pursuit of happiness extolled in Brooks’ early work. It’s not a bad life, clearly, and I don’t necessarily begrudge anyone for pursuit it.

The trouble comes in pursuing it alone, and nothing else. Deep within this comfort there is a moral poverty: everyone plays out the string as they see fit. Forget complaints about moral relativism; there is no moral dimension at all, as the whole language necessary to even make these distinctions falls away. People become lost and have no means to figure out why. Even the humanities, designed with this express purpose, often fails, aiming instead for aesthetic, utilitarian, or political arguments to justify its existence. It’s no wonder these departments are collapsing left and right. But there are encouraging signs, Brooks’ latest book among them, that people are starting to realize something is missing. Hopefully the new book offers some models, and some ways to cultivate that character necessary to pursue the truly good life. If Brooks can do that for people, it would amount to a legacy far greater than his scattered collection of brief columns.

Sometimes, though, one of the sparks that helps a jaded kid make sense of the disparate threads of life, one that plays off those turning points and fuses them with ongoing interests, comes from an unexpected place. In that lecture I attended four years ago, Brooks dropped in a book recommendation: Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I jotted it down at the time, picked it up a year or two later, and the rest is history.



15 Dec

To the west of Mexico City, in the mountains of Michoacán, lies a small city that once aspired to utopia. Its champion was a man named Vasco de Quiroga, a sixteenth-century bishop who was among the heroes of the miserable tale of colonial America. Tata Vasco, as he is affectionately known among the indigenous Purepecha who still populate the region, did all he could to save the natives from the predations of imperial Spain. The contemporary city of Pátzcuaro, of course, is no utopia; it’s in one of the less stable states of a tumultuous nation, gripped by the poverty that afflicts so much of Mexico. Yet even so, something from that past lingers in the proud indigenous communities that still make the handcrafts Tata Vasco divided among the villages, and in the timeless cobblestone streets that carry in the wind off the nearby lake.

There is good reason to be leery of utopia. The last century has been defined by the horrors perpetrated by people who thought they were creating utopias, and anyone with any sense of the tragic side of human life knows what a delusion those dreams of earthly paradise may seem. How easy it is to dismiss utopian thought as naïve, or even reckless, as the true believers barrel ahead with their agenda without a thought about what they’re doing to the world. How often do we hear vague appeals to ‘freedom’ or ‘justice’ without any concept of what these words actually mean? They are the canards of sorry souls who try to invent broader meaning for their lives, placing themselves in some grand sweep of history; a desperate attempt to make life relevant in a world where we cannot share transcendent meaning and are left to invent things for ourselves.

The skeptic’s stance is a scathing one, vicious in its demolition of that utopian instinct. And yet, just as much as the tragic impulse, the drive to utopia is part and parcel of the human condition. It can take curious or even sorry channels, but no amount of cynicism can bludgeon it to death. Retreat from utopia is just as much of a utopia itself, an impossible ideal inseparable from nihilism and all its attendant contradictions.

Dreams are not reality, and should never be mistaken for it. But they are an integral part of the cycle, ever reminders that our rational thoughts, when carried to all their logical conclusions, cannot even begin to answer all of our questions. They inspire awe, and even fear. As they should. To die, to sleep; to sleep, perchance to dream: aye, there’s the rub, for in that sleep what dreams of death may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.


Modern man likes to pretend that his thinking is wide-awake. But this wide-awake thinking has led us into the maze of a nightmare in which the torture chambers are endlessly repeated in the mirrors of reason. When we emerge, perhaps we will realize that we have been dreaming with our eyes open, and that the dreams of reason are intolerable. And then, perhaps, we will begin to dream once more with our eyes closed.

—Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude


My own relationship with utopia is a tortured one, filled with both wild dreams and relentless reasoning. I’ve also been skeptical of it, often even downright hostile, and justifiably so. Yet I can’t quench the thirst. I’ve written my own utopias in search of one, populated entire worlds that I could disappear into forever, if I so chose. Much of this has been a lonely search, though not always so; at times I’ve dragged unwitting victims along, as in my own journey to Pátzcuaro, and at times I’ve managed to convene a little salon with no limits on what it might ask. The conclusion is always the same.

Utopia is something that these paltry, inadequate words will never quite capture. The Socratic critique rings true: the more we know, the more we know we don’t know. And the more aware we are of utopia before us, the more hollow it all seems when we can’t quite find it. No one can, for too long. Small wonder so many believers in utopia are also prone to disappointment and even rage, when it all falls short. The glimpse is ever a dangerous one.

One must push things, to find that glimpse; live a bit, and tread on untested ground. But the search needs grounding. All journeys have a beginning, and all have an end. We have stories that write themselves; things we can bend, yes, but never break. We are what we come from, and in these bounds, we must find whatever it is we search for. Utopia is right here before us, if only we open up our eyes. Perhaps that defeats the point of utopia, but if that’s the case, it’s no great loss.

(Utopia II)