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Brooks's Final Chapter: Humility Code

The final chapter of David Brooks' The Road to Character is a rich and complex summary and an discussion of why and how our culture changed.

He opens by contrasting Johnny Unitas with Joe Namath.  Both grew up in the same area of western Pennyslvania and only a decade apart, but were fundamentally different people.  Unitas said "I always figured being a little dull was part of being pro."  Namath was anything but dull.  Brooks explains that Unitas viewed football as a job that was not fundamentally different from a factory worker or plumber.  Namath engaged in self-promotion.

Reading this section made me think of Tom Landry.  I miss his style of coaching.  Dressed in a suit like a professional, he was generally stoic in his response to the what was happening on the field.  I don't really care for the way most coaches dress and behave these days.

So, when did this change occur?  Brooks says that it wasn't the Baby Boomers and the upheavals of the late 1960's, like many people think.  No, the change occurred in what Brokaw called the "Greatest Generation."  In the post-war world they promoted a new culture of self-esteem and authenticity and abandoned the tradition of moral realism.

Brooks cites a number of examples, like Norman Vincent Peale's bestselling The Power of Positive Thinking.  Interesting, I read back in November that Peale was Trump's favorite minister and even performed his first wedding.

He writes that this change was a response to its time and that there were good reasons and results for the change, but I want to write about those in the next post.  But with the change "A moral vocabulary was lost and along with it a methodology for the formation of souls."

Key to the tradition of moral realism, according to Brooks, was a grasp of human limitations.  

Some of these limitations are epistemological: reason is weak and the world is complex.  We cannot really grasp the complexity of the world or the full truth about ourselves.  Some of these limitations are moral: There are bugs in our souls that lead us toward selfishness and pride, that tempt us to put lower loves over higher loves.  Some of the limitations are psychological: We are divided within ourselves, and many of the most urgent motions of our minds are unconscious and only dimly recognized by ourselves.  Some of them are social: We are not self-completing creatures.  To thrive we have to throw ourselves into a state of dependence--on others, on institutions, on the divine.  

Brooks does not believe we need to abandon the new culture and return to the old one, but that we need to find greater balance between the two in order to respond to the moral needs of our time.  But more on that in a future post, in which I'll also share some personal reflections.


Sun, Sand, and Single: An American Woman in Saudi Arabia, 1960-62

Sun, Sand and Single: An American Woman in Saudi Arabia, 1960-62Sun, Sand and Single: An American Woman in Saudi Arabia, 1960-62 by Nancy a Gray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fun, witty, and insightful glimpse of a lost world. It may only have been a half century ago when Nancy Gray lived in Arabia and visited throughout the Middle East, but the world she experienced--of Beirut as the "Paris of the Middle East" and pre-Revolutionary Iran--is no longer.

She arrived in Saudi Arabia in 1960 to teach school for the Aramco oil company. Initially her exotic expectations are unfulfilled as she struggles to create social connections and find her place. But soon the narrative turns to her series of adventures in the region--from the unique way she visits an island in the Gulf to attending Christmas Eve services in Bethlehem--and the lessons she learns about the region, its history, and its people.

One interesting feature of Nancy's story is how many of her conversation partners are themselves exiles and refugees sharing about the lost worlds of the early 20th century--including the Joneses who organized relief for fleeing Palestinians during the 1948 war or Natalya the refugee from Czarist Russia living a diminished life in Beirut or the Armenian shop owner relating tales of the genocide of his people at the hands of the Turks.

From one smart and witty perspective we receive an intimate view of the turmoil and turbulence of the twentieth century.

Note: It was my privilege and honor to twice workshop portions of this memoir at the Yale Writers Conferences in 2014 and 2015 and to spend many mealtimes in extended conversation with the author, the delightful Nancy Gray.

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The Little Red Chairs

The Little Red ChairsThe Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

O'Brien writes wonderful sentences ("The current, swift and dangerous, surges with a manic glee, chunks of wood and logs of ice borne along in its trail.") and wonderful paragraphs. She richly reveals her characters and the setting.

But I didn't care for the story at all. And the structure which at first seemed to serve a point of revealing various points of view in the Irish village of Cloonoila became a jumbled mess of characters and settings as the plot developed and we moved to London and beyond.

And the moments of horror were more than I cared to read. I'd rather be ignorant.

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