David Brooks is one of a few contemporary writers whose every word I want to read. He writes regularly for the New York Times. I find him so appealing because he always brings something serious to the table and makes me think. He makes me a better American citizen. Routinely, his writing is a commentary on contemporary political life with reference to economics, literature, philosophy, religion and more. Agreeing with him is not as important as thinking along with him.
A recent editorial is a good example. “Enter the Age of the Outsiders,” was the title of the piece. Although I could guess what he might address, I plunged into his thoughts. He begins by talking about how the gravitational force of the sun keeps all the rest of the planets, etc. in their place. He comments, “Gravity from the center lends coherence to the entire solar system.” He then shifts to political and social worlds and notes that is how it used to be in those worlds, too. Continuing the analogy, he says there “used to a few big suns radiating conviction and meaning” in those worlds, too.
This is the reason I like how Brooks thinks. Suddenly, we are introduced to two key ideas: conviction and meaning. No longer is it solely about the sun, stars and gravitation. Now it is about human hearts and minds---the stuff of spirituality in my littler world. He has my attention. It is as if he is saying, there is no center any more in our political and social worlds. I tend to agree.
He contends there used to be “big suns” in those worlds. He does not name them, but I think he has people like Eisenhower and Reagan in mind. Arguably there are others as well. He believes the 1990s were the last time America seemed to be centered---end of the elder Bush era and the Clinton period. This was a time of American confidence and strength at home and globally.
Then Brooks drops in a sentence that I found intriguing. This was a period of vision, he claims. Then he comments, “This vision was materialistic and individualistic.” I don’t know how you could prove him correct or wrong, but his perspective makes sense to me. This was the era when it seemed like the Cold War was finished. The Berlin Wall had come down. Eastern European countries where leaving the old Soviet Russia. On the surface things seemed good. But the vision was materialistic and individualistic.
However, we all know what has happened since the turn of the 21st century. We have experienced 9/11, Enron, terrorism and the list goes on. Instead of having a strong center, the nation seems splintered and too many people feel “off center.” Brooks’ analogy of the sun’s gravitation holding all things in place still works. If we have lost our center, no wonder things seem to have flown off into all directions. We can even wonder whether there is any vision now.
Brooks pulls no punches. He simply asserts, “Mass stupidity and greed led to a financial collapse and deprived capitalism of its moral swagger.” I like the description of “mass stupidity!” It says it clearly. And with that last sentence, I could see it coming---the vintage David Brooks.
His next sentence nailed it. “But the deeper problem was spiritual.” Materialism and individualism work as a short-term vision, but they are not spiritual. They don’t have sufficient gravitational pull to keep things together for the long haul. They don’t come with meaning packaged into their message. Spirituality offers meaning and purpose. Material success is great, but it does not have any inherent meaning and purpose. Individualism seems attractive---doing whatever I want. But it lacks a transcendent, more-than-me perspective which finally is necessary for authentic well-being.
The spiritual perspective knows that the human spirit longs for purpose in life. We need a bigger reason to live than simply doing whatever I want and being rich. The spiritual perspective needs meaning to make life worth more than mere economic worth. We want to be worthy men and women. Spiritually I say we need a center---what I want to call a sacred center.
Because I believe in God, I am happy to capitalize Center. Each of us humans longs for this kind of Center to bring coherence to our little worlds. And our communities and nation need leaders who are aware of and connected to this Center. It will be from this kind of center that a vision more profound that materialism and individualism can be created and articulated.
We all know what our personal vision offers: it focuses, empowers and sustains us through our lives. Our communities need that kind of vision, too. This is not an appeal for some kind of religious answer; the terrorists have gone down the path! But I do join Brooks in saying we need a deeper spiritual vision that focuses, empowers and can sustain us. We need an army of good men and women ready to go to love instead of war and to make peace instead of a mess. We will do this from the Sacred Center.