David Brooks Goes to the Basement

A buzzword like “character” could mean just about anything you want it to mean. Like […]

Ethan Richardson / 7.14.15

A buzzword like “character” could mean just about anything you want it to mean. Like a lot of reclaimed, lofty words from Ancient Greece or Rome — virtue, beauty, culture — character has picked up a lot of fuzz along the way, enough to become a proverbial lightning rod for just about any self-help guru and pop academic and thought-leader under the sun. Which is why David Brooks’ newest title, The Road to Character, did not exactly grab me like the earlier Bobos in Paradise. It sounded too much like the kind of book a dad pushes on an eighteen-year-old graduate. Or an HR executive plants in her office giftbags.

But Brooks is up to something quite subversive here. Unlike any other book you may find in either the sociology or self-help sections, he seems to leaning towards the kind of character-building that takes you away from its axis completely.

stiltmanIn his preface, Brooks builds a distinction between the way the world tends to work, and the way character-building tends to work. He describes something akin to the Galatians distinction between flesh and spirit (or theology of glory versus theology of the cross), only he uses the terms Adam I and Adam II. The Adam I principle is power and fortune, the Adam II principle is humility and sacrifice. Brooks describes that, “While Adam I’s motto is “Success,” Adam II experiences life as a moral drama. His motto is ‘Charity, love, redemption.'” Like Paul himself, he describes our lives as a perpetual conflict between these two selves.

Paradoxically, Brooks argues that the “Adam II” moments of life tend to leave the lasting impressions upon us. After all, this is the true etymology of “character”–a mark made upon us. An imprint. They are not moments we create, or manipulate, or even choose. Oftentimes, they are moments of struggle we never would have volunteered for ourselves. This is the way he describes the life of Dorothy Day and her kinship with suffering.

The first big thing suffering does is it drags you deeper into yourself. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routine busyness of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The pain involved in, say, composing a great piece of music or the grief of having lost a loved one smashes through a floor they thought was the bottom floor of their soul, revealing a cavity below, and then it smashes through that floor, revealing another cavity, and so on and so on. The person in pain descends to unknown ground.

klh_89_hr-webSuffering opens up ancient places of pain that had been hidden. It exposes frightening experiences that had been repressed, shameful wrongs that had been committed. It spurs some people to painfully and carefully examine the basement of their own soul. But it also presents the pleasurable sensation that one is getting closer to the truth. The pleasure in suffering is that you feel you are getting beneath the superficial and approaching the fundamental. It creates what modern psychologists call “depressive realism,” an ability to see things exactly the way they are. It shatters the comforting rationalizations and pat narratives we tell about ourselves as part of our way of simplifying ourselves for the world.

Then, too, suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, of what they can control and not control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, thrust into lonely self-scrutiny, they are forced to confront the fact that they can’t determine what goes on there.

Suffering, like love, shatters the illusion of self-mastery. Those who suffer can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone. And even when tranquility begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where that relief comes from. The healing process, too, feels as though it’s part of some natural or divine process beyond individual control. For people in this striving culture, in this Adam I world where everything is won by effort, exertion, and control, suffering teaches dependence. It teaches that life is unpredictable and that the meritocrat’s efforts at total control are an illusion.


I love this image Brooks is implying, that while reality is the ancient basement floor, our everyday lives operate more or less on stilts, an illusory scaffolding of self-reliance. Ironic that these complicated structures are our own “simplifications”. Character, in modern usage, tends to be built on, not deconstructed. And it is never brought on by a wounding/scarring experience. Brooks doesn’t stop there. He says that no one comes back from suffering cured. Once we are dropped to the basement, we are less likely to venture out beyond its firm foundation.

Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that often lead to suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability and become available to healing love. They hurl themselves deeper and more gratefully into their art, loved ones, and commitments.

This way, suffering becomes a fearful gift, very different from that other gift, happiness, conventionally defined. The latter brings pleasure, but the former cultivates character.