The lies our culture tells us about what matters — and a better way to live | David Brooks

The lies our culture tells us about what matters — and a better way to live | David Brooks


So, we all have bad seasons in life. And I had one in 2013. My marriage had just ended, and I was humiliated
by that failed commitment. My kids had left home for college
or were leaving. I grew up mostly
in the conservative movement, but conservatism had changed, so I lost a lot of those friends, too. And so what I did is,
I lived alone in an apartment, and I just worked. If you opened the kitchen drawers
where there should have been utensils, there were Post-it notes. If you opened the other drawers
where there should have been plates, I had envelopes. I had work friends, weekday friends,
but I didn’t have weekend friends. And so my weekends
were these long, howling silences. And I was lonely. And loneliness, unexpectedly,
came to me in the form of — it felt like fear,
a burning in my stomach. And it felt a little like drunkenness, just making bad decisions,
just fluidity, lack of solidity. And the painful part of that moment
was the awareness that the emptiness in my apartment
was just reflective of the emptiness in myself, and that I had fallen for some of the lies
that our culture tells us. The first lie is that
career success is fulfilling. I’ve had a fair bit of career success, and I’ve found that it helps me avoid
the shame I would feel if I felt myself a failure, but it hasn’t given me any positive good. The second lie is I can make myself happy, that if I just win one more victory, lose 15 pounds, do a little more yoga, I’ll get happy. And that’s the lie of self-sufficiency. But as anybody
on their deathbed will tell you, the things that make people happy
is the deep relationships of life, the losing of self-sufficiency. The third lie is the lie
of the meritocracy. The message of the meritocracy
is you are what you accomplish. The myth of the meritocracy
is you can earn dignity by attaching yourself
to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy
is conditional love, you can “earn” your way to love. The anthropology of the meritocracy
is you’re not a soul to be purified, you’re a set of skills to be maximized. And the evil of the meritocracy is that people who’ve achieved
a little more than others are actually worth
a little more than others. And so the wages of sin are sin. And my sins were the sins of omission– not reaching out,
failing to show up for my friends, evasion, avoiding conflict. And the weird thing was
that as I was falling into the valley — it was a valley of disconnection — a lot of other people
were doing that, too. And that’s sort of
the secret to my career; a lot of the things that happen to me are always happening
to a lot of other people. I’m a very average person
with above average communication skills. (Laughter) And so I was detached. And at the same time,
a lot of other people were detached and isolated and fragmented
from each other. Thirty-five percent of Americans
over 45 are chronically lonely. Only eight percent of Americans
report having meaningful conversation with their neighbors. Only 32 percent of Americans
say they trust their neighbors, and only 18 percent of millennials. The fastest-growing
political party is unaffiliated. The fastest-growing religious
movement is unaffiliated. Depression rates are rising,
mental health problems are rising. The suicide rate has risen
30 percent since 1999. For teen suicides
over the last several years, the suicide rate has risen by 70 percent. Forty-five thousand Americans
kill themselves every year; 72,000 die from opioid addictions; life expectancy is falling, not rising. So what I mean to tell you,
I flew out here to say that we have an economic crisis,
we have environmental crisis, we have a political crisis. We also have a social
and relational crisis; we’re in the valley. We’re fragmented from each other, we’ve got cascades of lies
coming out of Washington … We’re in the valley. And so I’ve spent the last five years — how do you get out of a valley? The Greeks used to say,
“You suffer your way to wisdom.” And from that dark period where I started,
I’ve had a few realizations. The first is, freedom sucks. Economic freedom is OK,
political freedom is great, social freedom sucks. The unrooted man is the adrift man. The unrooted man is the unremembered man,
because he’s uncommitted to things. Freedom is not an ocean
you want to swim in, it’s a river you want to get across, so you can commit and plant yourself
on the other side. The second thing I learned is that when you have
one of those bad moments in life, you can either be broken, or you can be broken open. And we all know people who are broken. They’ve endured some pain
or grief, they get smaller, they get angrier, resentful,
they lash out. As the saying is, “Pain that is not transformed
gets transmitted.” But other people are broken open. Suffering’s great power
is that it’s an interruption of life. It reminds you you’re not the person
you thought you were. The theologian Paul Tillich said what suffering does is it carves through
what you thought was the floor of the basement of your soul, and it carves through that,
revealing a cavity below, and it carves through that,
revealing a cavity below. You realize there are depths of yourself
you never anticipated, and only spiritual and relational food
will fill those depths. And when you get down there,
you get out of the head of the ego and you get into the heart, the desiring heart. The idea that what we really yearn for
is longing and love for another, the kind of thing that Louis de Bernières
described in his book, “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.” He had an old guy talking to his daughter about his relationship with his late wife, and the old guy says, “Love itself is whatever is leftover
when being in love is burned away. And this is both an art
and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it. We had roots that grew
towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms
had fallen from our branches, we discovered that we are
one tree and not two.” That’s what the heart yearns for. The second thing
you discover is your soul. Now, I don’t ask you to believe in God
or not believe in God, but I do ask you to believe
that there’s a piece of you that has no shape, size, color or weight, but that gives you
infinite dignity and value. Rich and successful people
don’t have more of this than less successful people. Slavery is wrong because
it’s an obliteration of another soul. Rape is not just an attack
on a bunch of physical molecules, it’s an attempt to insult
another person’s soul. And what the soul does
is it yearns for righteousness. The heart yearns for fusion with another,
the soul yearns for righteousness. And that led to my third realization,
which I borrowed from Einstein: “The problem you have
is not going to be solved at the level of consciousness
on which you created it. You have to expand
to a different level of consciousness.” So what do you do? Well, the first thing you do
is you throw yourself on your friends and you have deeper conversations
that you ever had before. But the second thing you do, you have to go out alone
into the wilderness. You go out into that place
where there’s nobody there to perform, and the ego has nothing to do,
and it crumbles, and only then are you capable
of being loved. I have a friend who said
that when her daughter was born, she realized that she loved her
more than evolution required. (Laughter) And I’ve always loved that. (Applause) Because it talks about the peace
that’s at the deep of ourself, our inexplicable care for one another. And when you touch that spot,
you’re ready to be rescued. The hard thing about
when you’re in the valley is that you can’t climb out; somebody has to reach in and pull you out. It happened to me. I got, luckily, invited over to a house
by a couple named Kathy and David, and they were — They had a kid in the DC
public school, his name’s Santi. Santi had a friend
who needed a place to stay because his mom had some health issues. And then that kid had a friend
and that kid had a friend. When I went to their house six years ago, I walk in the door, there’s like
25 around the kitchen table, a whole bunch sleeping
downstairs in the basement. I reach out to introduce myself to a kid, and he says, “We don’t really
shake hands here. We just hug here.” And I’m not the huggiest guy
on the face of the earth, but I’ve been going back to that home
every Thursday night when I’m in town, and just hugging all those kids. They demand intimacy. They demand that you behave in a way
where you’re showing all the way up. And they teach you a new way to live, which is the cure
for all the ills of our culture which is a way of direct —
really putting relationship first, not just as a word, but as a reality. And the beautiful thing is,
these communities are everywhere. I started something at the Aspen Institute
called “Weave: The Social Fabric.” This is our logo here. And we plop into a place and we find
weavers anywhere, everywhere. We find people like Asiaha Butler,
who grew up in — who lived in Chicago, in Englewood,
in a tough neighborhood. And she was about to move
because it was so dangerous, and she looked across the street
and she saw two little girls playing in an empty lot
with broken bottles, and she turned to her husband
and she said, “We’re not leaving. We’re not going to be just another family
that abandon that.” And she Googled “volunteer in Englewood,”
and now she runs R.A.G.E., the big community organization there. Some of these people
have had tough valleys. I met a woman named Sarah in Ohio
who came home from an antiquing trip and found that her husband
had killed himself and their two kids. She now runs a free pharmacy,
she volunteers in the community, she helps women cope
with violence, she teaches. She told me, “I grew from this
experience because I was angry. I was going to fight back against
what he tried to do to me by making a difference in the world. See, he didn’t kill me. My response to him is, ‘Whatever you meant to do to me,
screw you, you’re not going to do it.'” These weavers are not living
an individualistic life, they’re living a relationist life,
they have a different set of values. They have moral motivations. They have vocational certitude,
they have planted themselves down. I met a guy in Youngstown, Ohio, who just held up a sign
in the town square, “Defend Youngstown.” They have radical mutuality, and they are geniuses at relationship. There’s a woman named Mary Gordon who runs something
called Roots of Empathy. And what they do is they take
a bunch of kids, an eighth grade class, they put a mom and an infant, and then the students have to guess
what the infant is thinking, to teach empathy. There was one kid in a class
who was bigger than the rest because he’d been held back,
been through the foster care system, seen his mom get killed. And he wanted to hold the baby. And the mom was nervous
because he looked big and scary. But she let this kid,
Darren, hold the baby. He held it, and he was great with it. He gave the baby back and started
asking questions about parenthood. And his final question was, “If nobody has ever loved you,
do you think you can be a good father?” And so what Roots of Empathy does is they reach down and they grab
people out of the valley. And that’s what weavers are doing. Some of them switch jobs. Some of them stay in their same jobs. But one thing is,
they have an intensity to them. I read this — E.O. Wilson wrote a great book
called “Naturalist,” about his childhood. When he was seven,
his parents were divorcing. And they sent him
to Paradise Beach in North Florida. And he’d never seen the ocean before. And he’d never seen a jellyfish before. He wrote, “The creature was astonishing.
It existed beyond my imagination.” He was sitting on the dock one day and he saw a stingray
float beneath his feet. And at that moment, a naturalist was born
in the awe and wonder. And he makes this observation: that when you’re a child, you see animals at twice the size
as you do as an adult. And that has always impressed me, because what we want as kids
is that moral intensity, to be totally given ourselves
over to something and to find that level of vocation. And when you are around these weavers, they see other people
at twice the size as normal people. They see deeper into them. And what they see is joy. On the first mountain of our life,
when we’re shooting for our career, we shoot for happiness. And happiness is good,
it’s the expansion of self. You win a victory, you get a promotion,
your team wins the Super Bowl, you’re happy. Joy is not the expansion of self,
it’s the dissolving of self. It’s the moment when the skin barrier
disappears between a mother and her child, it’s the moment when a naturalist
feels just free in nature. It’s the moment where you’re so lost
in your work or a cause, you have totally self-forgotten. And joy is a better thing
to aim for than happiness. I collect passages of joy,
of people when they lose it. One of my favorite is from Zadie Smith. In 1999, she was in a London nightclub, looking for her friends,
wondering where her handbag was. And suddenly, as she writes, “… a rail-thin man with enormous eyes
reached across a sea of bodies for my hand. He kept asking me the same thing
over and over, ‘Are you feeling it?’ My ridiculous heels were killing me,
I was terrified that I might die, yet I felt simultaneously
overwhelmed with delight that ‘Can I Kick It?’
should happen to be playing on this precise moment
in the history of the world on the sound system, and it was now morphing
into ‘Teen Spirit.’ I took the man’s hand,
the top of my head blew away, we danced, we danced,
we gave ourselves up to joy.” And so what I’m trying to describe
is two different life mindsets. The first mountain mindset, which is about
individual happiness and career success. And it’s a good mindset,
I have nothing against it. But we’re in a national valley, because we don’t have
the other mindset to balance it. We no longer feel good
about ourselves as a people, we’ve lost our defining
faith in our future, we don’t see each other deeply,
we don’t treat each other as well. And we need a lot of changes. We need an economic change
and environmental change. But we also need a cultural
and relational revolution. We need to name the language
of a recovered society. And to me, the weavers
have found that language. My theory of social change
is that society changes when a small group of people
find a better way to live, and the rest of us copy them. And these weavers have found
a better way to live. And you don’t have to theorize about it. They are out there as community builders
all around the country. We just have to shift our lives a little, so we can say, “I’m a weaver,
we’re a weaver.” And if we do that, the hole inside ourselves gets filled, but more important,
the social unity gets repaired. Thank you very much. (Applause)

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100 thoughts on “The lies our culture tells us about what matters — and a better way to live | David Brooks”

  • You need someone to show you the example of giving you a little place in their mind, in order that you get the instinct for doing it.

  • Very poor delivery. Too fast, seemed to sound that he just rants with little or no intonation. A Monotonous rant.

  • Dave, the main reason I'm so cynical and distrustful of our society today is the conservatives you once worked with, and whom you still all but refuse to blame for their significant role in sowing divisions. You ride the fence when they turn nasty and then act surprised about this outcome…

  • This guy is clearly taking about the needs of extroverts. However, if an introvert gets out there, leads groups to do good things. They have given up more then an extrovert. They get little reward outside the fact they are helping people.

  • “Happiness is the expansion of self. Joy is the dissolving of self. Joy is the moment the skin barrier disappears between a mother and a child… it’s the moment you have totally self forgotten. Joy is the better thing to aim for than happiness.”

  • I never knew my father other than I was afraid of him. He never really came back from WWII, except as a shell of a man. I may have overcompensated a bit, but my son who is 32 now is my friend.

  • I have been a fan of your work on Shields and Brooks for years. Your analysis is always insightful and balanced. Having also lived in the valley, I enjoyed the accuracy and thoughtfulness of your TED speech with the added dimension of your passion. You nailed it.

  • It is a shame that you cannot trust people enough to truly "put yourself out there" to them. The odds that a significant other will betray you (and I don't mean fool around on you, or simply leave you. I mean destroy you!) are way too high.

  • Awww I love what he says about hugging it's so important to embrace our brothers and sisters it proven that touching and embracing is so powerful, it raises our vibration

  • Who is this person named culture? it's what you tell yourself that causes the problems. I have never met anyone named culture. Stop bs'ing everyone.

  • Lies like "it is morally questionable to leave your first wife while writing your book on integrity to date and eventually marry your much younger research assistant," eh, David?

  • More often than not I hear talks such as this where people is always referring to Americans. Why? Aren't the rest of the wold people having the same problems? Why Americans exclude the rest of world? Every thing is about Americans as though the planet earth is only inhabited by Americans.

  • It is David Brooks at his very best!

    I felt particularly enthralled and involved because I could relate personally to some of his experiences.

    The difference between happiness and joy is a truly classic notion that no population can fail to learn and appreciate.

    Well done, David Brooks!

  • Sir , you have some big balls and I respect you greatly for that talk you just gave! You could tell it was tough on you but you did it you got through it excellent!

  • “The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not? That is the telling question of his life. Only if we know that the thing which truly matters is the infinite can we avoid fixing our interests upon futilities, and upon all kinds of goals which are not of real importance. Thus we demand that the world grant us recognition for qualities which we regard as personal possessions: our talent or our beauty. The more a man lays stress on false possessions, and the less sensitivity he has for what is essential, the less satisfying is his life. He feels limited because he has limited aims, and the result is envy and jealousy. If we understand and feel that here in this life we already have a link with the infinite, desires and attitudes change.” – Carl Jung, Memories Dreams and Reflections

  • this is what happens when you live in a bubble, what a sad and depressing person, life is a blessing and should be celebrated everyday im way to happy to agree with any of this

  • Great heart-felt presentation by Brooks. I'm going to use this video in my classes to discuss social identity.

  • Beautiful indeed. If a man wants anything approaching happiness and/or a well-lived life, he needs to find friends, a good wife and he needs to hold on to those people at all costs. Those relationships will be the foundation for whatever comes next — professional success or failure, health or the lack of it — all of it.

  • Well this is certainly more interesting than boring politics! That guy we sometimes agreed with. 😉

  • Purpose can represent something true or false for me I came from a family that was dysfunctional. So for me it's always absolute confusion to believe something that like at as a result always becomes more or less not there ? Because it is based on you have to or you must do something ? So I prefer Taoism Lao Tzu as it only states that to "do nothing and you will have done everything " Because like breathing you are doing something easy for you something that as he says takes you away from your ego. Ego is the enemy within in in Taoism something that is nothing but dreams or delusions Our knowledge or knowledgable people to often separate themselves from us which is actually not knowledge and true ignorance. Why only have a mind with no body ? To change is conscience without doing anything at all
    just doing without doing No force is required in the Tao softness is life hardness is death . Being is born from non-being because you are being yourself you don't notice
    yourself honesty The Tao is not a religion and Tao Tzu would roll over in his grave if it were ever truly regarded that way. It is the writings of the ways of life a guide for life and how life changes. We know about sociopaths now and it worth looking up because we are not truly informed about them . We know what a narcissist does potentially however to not realize they exsist is again disconnection with life

  • "If happiness is what you're after, you're going to be disappointed more times than not. But joy is different… joy is a constant."

  • David Brooks is an international treasure. I simply love the man and eagerly await every Friday night, when the PBS Newshour brings him into my living room.

  • Broken In Jesus wisdom is found inn the Proverbs…….and In the scrptures…………Love never fails……….>>>>>

  • What career success?! Stuck in crappy jobs until I blessedly got put on badly needed disability, sickness saved my sanity

  • There are some people that like to be alone the majority of the time because that's how their personality type is. But that doesn't mean they doesn't enjoy talking and sharing their ideas to their loved ones.

  • How we think about ourselves is much more important than how others think about us. If we can make some difference in our lives, in others lives, we are proud of ourselves and what we do, have no fear of what others think of us. LOL.

  • Freedom to crush children with shame guilt and condemnation for being a boy is causing the explosion of suicide. The over compensation to destroy anything men and anything masculine is killing people. Men are being held responsible for every evil thing done by any criminal. Men are chiden for not being empathetic care givers. I have become crushed for the way I was born. Yet I am comfortable being a man because of my religious faith and my deeply held responsibility to be a great guy, a great husband, and a great provider.

    A free people require strong men. And in my mind, being a strong and polite man is part of my God given job.

    We have normalized abortion and single parenthood as perfectly fine. It is not. The only measurable priveledge in our nation is children with a mother and father in the home sharing their expectations of their children becoming great adults that can yes 'achieve' in business, create and produce AND provide for community the examples of pride in participating in a family that grows their children to contribute to their own individual strength and to contribute to inspiring others to grow into strong individuals to her women as FULL EQUAL women that STILL deserve our protections and courtesies from the men and women that take, take, take from all around.

    Our prisons are filled with children that we're raised with one parent or less.

    Priveledge comes from a TWO parent family with balance between protection, teaching, and expectations to become a strong adult that takes care of themselves, their children, and their community.

    For the last 50 years I have watched the shameful demasculinization of men. I assure you when our string righteous men are too few, the normal amount of evil doers will see weakness and take what they want.

    The rich country with weak men will be invaded and destroyed from within and then from outside conqueeors.

    Our boys are being systematically crushed and shamed for the sins of criminal males before they were born.

    Let's start there.

  • The hatred and intolerance of the Democrat organizations like Antifa and BLM are the root of the division in this country

  • You know what is a lie?

    think that you own the truth just because you don't think people can have a different outcome than yours

  • Not Bad, it is an Upper Middle Class Reflection. Some Genuine Quality. Weave, Nice Thought. However, Individuality is Important, So is Relationships. The Weavers sound Like Cool People, the Sixties, Seventies Definition of Cool. You Americans are Great, David makes the Point Americans have Work to do, Not the Work of the Hammer, Keyboard or Driver, the Work of Humanity. Good Luck to You All.

  • YouTube is so youth centric its seldom a lifes worth of reliable wisdom with its ups and downs, appreciation for both, and an optimism to keep improving beyond what impresses their ego that considered itself scorned gets to speak from a real experience of not being flawless yet be flawless in their gratitude for realizing that is what the human experience is and appreciate it and improve upon it regardless, that's progressive, and that's the REAL future.

  • We need to bring back Steven Pinker to set the record straight on whether everything is getting better or not!

  • I’ve been a fan of his political and social commentary (NPR, PBS, NY Times) for years now, but I have never before experienced the vulnerability he has demonstrated/shared herein…. he literally seems to be having a cathartic experience during his talk – his voice, tone, delivery, pauses and even slight stammering, convey a person speaking from the heart of his being… BRAVO Mr. Brooks!!👍👏🙏

  • The only culture this asshat would recognize is on the side of a yogurt container. Mr. apology for centrist BS. Another overpaid and under performing NYT opiner with rarely a cogent idea or valuable conviction.

  • I like the speech but i think its a little more nuanced than this. For a man in a midlife crisis with no one, i get he needs someone. Thought i would say balance in all things.

  • A lyric from a song; “The dead know what they’re doin’ when they leave this world behind.” I grew up in the 70’s on Monty Python, so I see this life as a circus to drift thru and make fun of. I live alone, I couldn’t imagine living with someone else, I’m hobbies and interests oriented, not people oriented, I do attend church every week and volunteer at the food pantry twice a year, so I’m not a hermit.

  • The Beatles said; "All you need is love". We are talking about humanity and community. We need to reevaluate what is important, and what success is about. It's no use having all the material gains, if you're disconnected from the community, friends and neighbours.

  • A different man but the same journey. It's true, the society and culture give us many messages which distract us. They distract us from who we really are. It's quite simple really to understand all of this. The message is simple and the message is to love. It seems to be the most difficult thing for humans to do. It is also seemingly the most difficult thing to continue doing. The weavers are not a new idea. Jesus spoke of it. The Buddha spoke of it. Krishna spends his days playing a flute in the meadow. Our hearts and our souls reach out for it every day. What seems to be the difficulty? Our hearts know how to love, do we need a college to teach it?

  • There isn’t anything more powerful than compassion. I learned that when I broke open in a deep valley of despair. The wonder of this speech is that he defines and describes compassion. I have always tried, but couldn’t find the words to describe the feeling “connection”, the joy of it. This is wonderful. We need this written down! Please!

  • I find Myself, as I age Loneliness. is a dark mark, I live in L.A. for most of my life , L.A. is Not A very friendly town. Oh I talk , and entertain angels., I feel not really recognized in a sea of people.and try to stay balanced.

  • I'm glad to hear this from someone who spent his life spreading neoliberal drivel. I have a hard time believing in the sincerity of his words, though.

  • His script is that of a writer and he talks to fast but that is all okay. It is great to see someone so well known in the US media industry to open up and show his personal valley of despair and how he wants to get out of it.

  • Weavers that have inspired me are John Farrell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) and Rob Avis at Verge Permaculture

  • Money is about top of the list .2md only to those who fool us into thinking they actually have more than us.lol

  • I met this guy at my school. I asked him "According to the individual voter calculus most people feel their vote doesnt matter. Why do people think their vote doesnt matter?" He scoffed looked down at his feet and smiled and said, "Why do you think your vote doesnt matter?" And then I said I dont think that my vote doesnt matter but many others do– another person interrupted us and said "Mr. Brooks has to go." So I shook his hand and left.

    Honestly I was just brushed off and the question he asked me suggested that he didnt even listen to me. It was probably because I was going to a liberal arts university and he probably thought that I thought something that I didnt. Nevertheless he brushed me off it was super rude honestly.

  • Did you know this life is all predetermined. Whatever is going to happen tomorrow, it will happen exactly as the author of earth has planed it to happen.
    Earth is a purpose made sick, evil creation.
    Talk is cheap – but entertaining.

  • your life didn't end up like that by itself, but someone used his network to make it like that. dissemination of information can be even in storytelling, at the end what happens to you is a programming of human indirectly using people ignorance in one part of knowledge and the psychopath used this part to destroy other, the only question why government give power to such psychopath.

  • Much of what is spoken about here is certainly related to the social degradation of the US. Find worth/value in things-what a friend or co-worker has- vs. health, stability, and relationships. That being said and being at the risk of furrowing a few 'brows, much of this is also getting into tune with God. Even the speaker cited partial bible verses, "discovering" themes readily found in scripture. no you don't have to be a preacher, priest, or stature of the like. But, these things that he "discovered/uncovered" a well-read Christian would readily recognize and find value in-not just this TedTalk.

  • Oh the irony. Most of what ails Americans today is the shamefulness that is America's foreign policy. People are waking up to realize that everything America has supposedly stood for, has been a lie,. We've been inundated with a a lifetime of propaganda. And the leading proponent of those lies has always been the NY Times, the very magazine that David Brooks works for.