http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/images/size340/DAVID_BROOKS_Credit_David_Burnett_BW_2011_CNA_5_19_15.jpgDenver, Colo., Dec 29, 2015 / 05:41 am (CNA).- New York Times columnist, best-selling author and all-around pundit David Brooks made headlines earlier this year for his bold new book making the case for a societal return to morality.
Perhaps lesser known, however, is some of the inspiration behind the work – a humble priest described by Brooks as an “insanely joyful” man who sparked a nagging, internal question. Why was this cleric so happy and fulfilled?
What followed was a meticulously researched and engaging book which poses a provocative thesis: we as a modern society are cultivating outwardly impressive but ultimately superficial “resume virtues” – not character. And it’s costing us dearly, the author says, both personally and communally.
In a conversation with CNA editors, Brooks recounted his experience with the priest along with his thoughts on why his book – “The Road to Character” (Random House/2015) – is so important, and how it speaks to everything from politics, to religion to education.
He also gave a hat tip to Pope Francis, whom he called “the embodiment of being a Christian.”
Below is the full Q&A, edited for clarity.
You’re very brave – all of your recent headlines explicitly touting the need for “morality.” Your book’s glaring reference to “sin.” Has there been any fallout from this? What’s the reaction been from your peers?
A friend of mine who is an editor at another publishing house – a really good editor – called me and said, you know, I love the way you talk about your book, but I wouldn’t use the word “sin” – it’s just such a downer, so you should use the word “insensitive.” I of course think that “insensitive” is very paltry substitute for the word “sin,” so there has been some pushback on that. And, there’s some hostility towards religion in general. The book is not super religious, but it does have religious characters, and certainly religious words and religious context. But I’d say the main reaction has just been welcoming. People are hungry for a conversation. And so, whether people are Christian, Jewish, atheist – I’ve been sort of surprised by the general desire to be in this general field of conversation.
When did you realize in your own life that you’d been building “resume virtues” instead of forming your character?
There wasn’t one big thing – but there were certain moments in my life when I saw people who had spiritual and moral gifts that I lacked. One of them was a guy named Monsignor Ray East, who is a priest in the Anacostia neighborhood in D.C. – a very poor neighborhood. He was part of a lunch I do every year for Catholic Relief Services, which I do with my friend, Mark Shields. And every year, Monsignor East would give the benediction. He was just insanely joyful – such an insanely joyful man, and I was just so struck by him. Just being in his presence would lift me up for a few weeks. I had the realization that whatever I had achieved in career terms, I haven’t achieved the inner joy that he possesses. And I was just curious: how do you get that?
In your book, you talk about a cultural shift over the last 50 plus years away from humility – and a natural sense of self-effacement people had – into the notion of the “big me.” What caused this?
There are many aspects, of course. One of them derives from the consumer society, that teaches that you have these desires and you should satisfy them, and so you should just go around satisfying your desires. And so I think you come to believe that your desires are good and to have tremendous trust in them – and that is a shift away from what people thought in previous centuries. Second, after WWII, people had been through deprivation and had seen a lot of darkness, from the Holocaust and just the death that WWII created. (A series of books from the time promoted the idea) that when we look inside ourselves, we see that our nature is beautiful and full of good and that we need to love ourselves more. That too is a sharp break from the biblical tradition which says that we are broken – so there was both a commercial and philosophical shift that happened.