Sense and Nonsense

Posts from the “new york times” Category

David Brooks: The Moral Bucket List

Posted on April 17, 2015

David Brooks hits a home run. Would he stick to essays about living better rather than treatises on politics . . .

There is so much here that should be examined closely. The essentiality of humility and connection. We cannot walk alone, despite the cultural hype to the contrary. There is salvation in love outside ourselves . . . “should the stars walk backward” or otherwise.



Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 9.28.50 PM

Credit Rachel Levit. Photography by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

ABOUT once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character.

A few years ago I realized that I wanted to be a bit more like those people. I realized that if I wanted to do that I was going to have to work harder to save my own soul. I was going to have to have the sort of moral adventures that produce that kind of goodness. I was going to have to be better at balancing my life.

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.

But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.

So a few years ago I set out to discover how those deeply good people got that way. I didn’t know if I could follow their road to character (I’m a pundit, more or less paid to appear smarter and better than I really am). But I at least wanted to know what the road looked like.

Credit Rachel Levit. Photography by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

I came to the conclusion that wonderful people are made, not born — that the people I admired had achieved an unfakeable inner virtue, built slowly from specific moral and spiritual accomplishments.

If we wanted to be gimmicky, we could say these accomplishments amounted to a moral bucket list, the experiences one should have on the way toward the richest possible inner life. Here, quickly, are some of them:

THE HUMILITY SHIFT We live in the culture of the Big Me. The meritocracy wants you to promote yourself. Social media wants you to broadcast a highlight reel of your life. Your parents and teachers were always telling you how wonderful you were.

But all the people I’ve ever deeply admired are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. They have identified their core sin, whether it is selfishness, the desperate need for approval, cowardice, hardheartedness or whatever. They have traced how that core sin leads to the behavior that makes them feel ashamed. They have achieved a profound humility, which has best been defined as an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.

SELF-DEFEAT External success is achieved through competition with others. But character is built during the confrontation with your own weakness. Dwight Eisenhower, for example, realized early on that his core sin was his temper. He developed a moderate, cheerful exterior because he knew he needed to project optimism and confidence to lead. He did silly things to tame his anger. He took the names of the people he hated, wrote them down on slips of paper and tore them up and threw them in the garbage. Over a lifetime of self-confrontation, he developed a mature temperament. He made himself strong in his weakest places.

THE DEPENDENCY LEAP Many people give away the book “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” as a graduation gift. This book suggests that life is an autonomous journey. We master certain skills and experience adventures and certain challenges on our way to individual success. This individualist worldview suggests that character is this little iron figure of willpower inside. But people on the road to character understand that no person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason and compassion are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride and self-deception. We all need redemptive assistance from outside.

People on this road see life as a process of commitment making. Character is defined by how deeply rooted you are. Have you developed deep connections that hold you up in times of challenge and push you toward the good? In the realm of the intellect, a person of character has achieved a settled philosophy about fundamental things. In the realm of emotion, she is embedded in a web of unconditional loves. In the realm of action, she is committed to tasks that can’t be completed in a single lifetime.

ENERGIZING LOVE Dorothy Day led a disorganized life when she was young: drinking, carousing, a suicide attempt or two, following her desires, unable to find direction. But the birth of her daughter changed her. She wrote of that birth, “If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms.”

That kind of love decenters the self. It reminds you that your true riches are in another. Most of all, this love electrifies. It puts you in a state of need and makes it delightful to serve what you love. Day’s love for her daughter spilled outward and upward. As she wrote, “No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I often felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.”

She made unshakable commitments in all directions. She became a Catholic, started a radical newspaper, opened settlement houses for the poor and lived among the poor, embracing shared poverty as a way to build community, to not only do good, but be good. This gift of love overcame, sometimes, the natural self-centeredness all of us feel.

THE CALL WITHIN THE CALL We all go into professions for many reasons: money, status, security. But some people have experiences that turn a career into a calling. These experiences quiet the self. All that matters is living up to the standard of excellence inherent in their craft.

Frances Perkins was a young woman who was an activist for progressive causes at the start of the 20th century. She was polite and a bit genteel. But one day she stumbled across the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, and watched dozens of garment workers hurl themselves to their deaths rather than be burned alive. That experience shamed her moral sense and purified her ambition. It was her call within a call.

After that, she turned herself into an instrument for the cause of workers’ rights. She was willing to work with anybody, compromise with anybody, push through hesitation. She even changed her appearance so she could become a more effective instrument for the movement. She became the first woman in a United States cabinet, under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and emerged as one of the great civic figures of the 20th century.

THE CONSCIENCE LEAP In most lives there’s a moment when people strip away all the branding and status symbols, all the prestige that goes with having gone to a certain school or been born into a certain family. They leap out beyond the utilitarian logic and crash through the barriers of their fears.

The novelist George Eliot (her real name was Mary Ann Evans) was a mess as a young woman, emotionally needy, falling for every man she met and being rejected. Finally, in her mid-30s she met a guy named George Lewes. Lewes was estranged from his wife, but legally he was married. If Eliot went with Lewes she would be labeled an adulterer by society. She’d lose her friends, be cut off by her family. It took her a week to decide, but she went with Lewes. “Light and easily broken ties are what I neither desire theoretically nor could live for practically. Women who are satisfied with such ties do not act as I have done,” she wrote.

She chose well. Her character stabilized. Her capacity for empathetic understanding expanded. She lived in a state of steady, devoted love with Lewes, the kind of second love that comes after a person is older, scarred a bit and enmeshed in responsibilities. He served her and helped her become one of the greatest novelists of any age. Together they turned neediness into constancy.

Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?

Their lives often follow a pattern of defeat, recognition, redemption. They have moments of pain and suffering. But they turn those moments into occasions of radical self-understanding — by keeping a journal or making art. As Paul Tillich put it, suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were.

The people on this road see the moments of suffering as pieces of a larger narrative. They are not really living for happiness, as it is conventionally defined. They see life as a moral drama and feel fulfilled only when they are enmeshed in a struggle on behalf of some ideal.

This is a philosophy for stumblers. The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness. Recognizing her limitations, the stumbler at least has a serious foe to overcome and transcend. The stumbler has an outstretched arm, ready to receive and offer assistance. Her friends are there for deep conversation, comfort and advice.

External ambitions are never satisfied because there’s always something more to achieve. But the stumblers occasionally experience moments of joy. There’s joy in freely chosen obedience to organizations, ideas and people. There’s joy in mutual stumbling. There’s an aesthetic joy we feel when we see morally good action, when we run across someone who is quiet and humble and good, when we see that however old we are, there’s lots to do ahead.

The stumbler doesn’t build her life by being better than others, but by being better than she used to be. Unexpectedly, there are transcendent moments of deep tranquillity. For most of their lives their inner and outer ambitions are strong and in balance. But eventually, at moments of rare joy, career ambitions pause, the ego rests, the stumbler looks out at a picnic or dinner or a valley and is overwhelmed by a feeling of limitless gratitude, and an acceptance of the fact that life has treated her much better than she deserves.

Those are the people we want to be.


Sunday Review | Don’t Quote Me on This | MARIA KONNIKOVA

Posted on March 9, 2014

Facilitating an “Impulse to Shortcut Actual Thought”

In providing access to information and knowledge that would have required a potentially, and for many, likely, preclusive amount of time, research and reading, the Internet shortcut has had equally perverse consequences as well.  It facilitates natural tendencies towards intellectual laziness, where we co-opt and substitute others’ hard wrought conclusions for our own, without the benefits of the intellectual rigor, hypothesizing and failing, refinement and evolution from which those conclusions sprang.  While we are busy manipulating others’ validation , we are missing nuances they discovered from developing it on our own.  Eager to take bits and pieces of what others’ have said for our own purposes, we pay little, if any, attention to the greater, potentially contradictory, context of those convenient “truths.”

*                                   *                                   *

Screen Shot 2014-03-09 at 11.40.37 AM“I HATE quotation. Tell me what you know,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his journal one spring day in 1849. He was talking about a very specific tendency. When we’re faced with an issue that’s meant to be thought provoking (in this particular case, immortality), we reach for the easy way out. “I notice,” he writes, “that as soon as writers broach this question, they begin to quote.” Quotation becomes a way not to add depth to your thinking, but to avoid thinking in the first place.

Tamara Shopsin

Welcome to the world of the Internet. What would Emerson have made of it? Examined from one perspective, it’s a place that provides endless fodder for the type of anti-thought he despised. He would have shuddered to find himself quoted and requoted millions of times (make that millions plus one), often with little understanding of who he was or what he stood for. Decontextualized knowledge — snippets that stream past as links, tweets, posts, memes — dominates.

But ask just about anyone, however stern a critic of online culture she may be, if she’d like the Internet to disappear tomorrow, and she would laugh in your face. Because the Internet is also a place where all of Emerson’s work is available and searchable. If you choose to delve deeply, the steppingstone for thought and analysis is there for the taking. It’s the dream of the Alexandrian library realized, only this time it can’t be destroyed by fire.

Like pretty much every other 20-something, I’m online constantly, from the moment I wake up to bedtime. My iPhone sleeps by my bed. I Twitter and I Facebook — so much that I use both as verbs. I grew up with neither cellphone nor television, but I’ve come to rely on our ability to stay connected. I need the Internet for my work. I need it for my research. I need it, often, for my sanity.

With one important caveat. When I need to write or think, I shut the whole thing down. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get sucked into the very sort of vortex Emerson warned against, to drift from fragment to fragment without pausing to consider the whole that any of them imply. I become a link zombie, mindlessly hungry for more: The lure of quotation wears me down.

The problem is one of limited time and energy meeting limitless content: knowledge being elbowed out by sheer information, context be damned.

Take this example. I’m writing an article on individual rights in politics. Gamely, I Google freedom quotes, which leads me to this one: “Liberty is precious.” Perfect. But what if I then learn that the speaker is Lenin? And that he immediately followed those sweet words with “so precious that it must be rationed”?

As it happens, my televisionless childhood came courtesy of my Russian immigrant parents, who fled the Soviet Union to make sure I avoided just such truisms, which become chilling once you realize their context.

In art, decontextualization can give an object new meaning. Artists from René Magritte onward have used it to great effect. We see a decontextualized object “in a new light.” In writing, though, that new meaning can be troubling.

When we strip away context, we strip away everything that enables us to determine what something really means. Words themselves become decorative — evocative, perhaps, but denuded of their essence. To recapture comprehension, a more classic touch is needed, a detailed picture, with precise strokes and every element fully rendered. There’s a reason the Soviets loved slogans.

Before the advent of the Internet, I would have had to read Lenin’s writing, heard it discussed, or seen it in a collection of quotations to know to even look for that particular excerpt. And had I done so? I probably never would have come across it. The first known reference to the phrase was in 1936, in Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s “Soviet Communism.” Lenin may well have never even said it. Now, however, the quote is its own free-floating pearl of wisdom.

Neil Postman, the author of “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” called this phenomenon “telegraphic discourse.” After the telegraph emerged, “ ‘knowing’ the facts took on a new meaning,” he wrote, “for it did not imply that one understood implications, background, or connections. Telegraphic discourse permitted no time for historical perspectives and gave no priority to the qualitative.”

So this is not a new problem. It’s endemic instead to a certain approach: the laziness of not really knowing what you’re looking for but hoping to find something that fits, the intellectual equivalent of mindlessly yanking open the fridge. I’m not sure what I think about immortality, so I’ll borrow from someone who’s done the heavy lifting and hope I find a ready match.

The Internet itself is not the culprit. It doesn’t quote people on its own or force you to quote yourself. And yet online, the problem multiplies almost despite our best intentions. The Internet invites quotation. Even if you start with a specific, complete thought in mind, vowing to use the web as a resource rather than a crutch, you are often pulled into the game in spite of yourself.

The qualities that thrive online are the qualities of speed: being first and being quick. Want a post to be shared on Facebook? One study shows that the shorter you can make it, the better your chances of success. Consider the new trend of tl;dr (too long; didn’t read). The premium on brevity and immediacy is anathema to context, and perfect for cherry picking. Who shares nuance?

Emerson didn’t hate quotation, not really. What he hated was our impulse to shortcut actual thought. The Internet didn’t create that impulse, but it has made it far more tempting and easier to satisfy.

Emerson could have told us that, too. It was he who warned us, after all, that “he who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself.” Even in Emerson’s time, we were link zombies, wandering from morsel to morsel to see what we could glean. His solution? Carry your context with you; make sure that even as you flit from sight to sight then or site to site now, you do so thoughtfully, with your own “self-culture,” as Emerson called it, ever in mind. Only then can you be someone who “visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet.”

Maria Konnikova is the author of “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.”

The Young White Faces of Slavery

Posted on February 1, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-02-01 at 12.35.26 PM
Library of Congress

“Rebecca, Charley & Rosa, slave children from New Orleans.” Charles Paxson, photographer, N.Y. Albumen print on carte de visite, c. 1864.

Library of Congress

“Isaac & Rosa, slave children from New Orleans.” M.H. Kimball, photographer. Albumen print on carte de visite, c. 1863.

Library of Congress

“Oh! How I Love the Old Flag!, Rebecca, a slave girl from New Orleans.” Charles Paxson, photographer, N.Y. Albumen print on carte de visite, c. 1864.

The Way Out: The New Gladiators

Posted on February 3, 2013



Published: February 2, 2013

WHEN the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers take the field during the Super Bowl today, the teams will have five players who come from a small, conflicted region in the northern Everglades known as Muck City. The dark, silty soil surrounding the Florida towns of Belle Glade and Pahokee, some 45 miles west of Palm Beach, creates a fertile region for agriculture.

Many of the black residents of the area were drawn there by the opportunity to work in the vegetable fields that surrounded the towns. The migrant workers, who by and large settled in run-down boardinghouses, began participating in two extraordinary football programs. The public high schools in Belle Glade and Pahokee, located eight miles apart, have sent at least 60 players to the National Football League, including the five who will suit up today: for Baltimore, Anquan Boldin, Deonte Thompson, Damien Berry and Pernell McPhee; for San Francisco, Ray McDonald.

But even more extraordinary is the world that produced these players. Official unemployment in Belle Glade hovers around 16 percent, although the town’s mayor believes it’s closer to 40 percent. In the Glades, the “official” jobless rate has always been a joke because so few people are even on the books. Many of the agricultural jobs disappeared as vegetable production turned into sugar growing, now largely mechanized.

In 2010, the Palm Beach County sheriff’s office estimated that half of the young men in Belle Glade between the ages of 18 and 25 had felony convictions. The town’s migrant quarter resembles something on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, or Kampala in Uganda. Some families have recently resorted to catching rainwater to survive because their utilities have been cut off for nonpayment.

In the ’80s, when the towns began exporting receivers and running backs to elite college programs far and wide, the region was notorious for having a very high AIDS rate. Drugs and shootings are inescapable.

In 2008, Norman Griffith, the captain of the Pahokee Blue Devils, was killed in a robbery after a game. In 2000, a linebacker for the Glades Central Raiders, Jyron Seider, was gunned down after a dice game.

In Muck City, the well-worn line that “football is like religion” doesn’t even begin to convey its importance. Football is salvation itself, a fleeting window of escape from a place where prison or early death are real and likely outcomes.

Mark Ovaska’s photographs focus on social issues.  Bryan Mealer’s latest book is “Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football’s Forgotten Town.”


%d bloggers like this: