David Brooks – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT
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. And so I was detached.
And at the same time, a lot of other people were detached and isolated and fragmented from each other. 35% of Americans over 45 are chronically lonely. Only 8% of Americans report having meaningful conversation with their neighbors. Only 32% of Americans say they trust their neighbors, and only 18% 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% since 1999.
For teen suicides over the last several years, the suicide rate has risen by 70%. 45,000 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.