PROVO — The standing ovation that cascaded from the top of BYU’s cavernous Marriott Center to the floor on Tuesday was evidence.
A changed, emotionally vulnerable David Brooks, the popular conservative New York Times columnist and best-selling author, connected deeply with nearly 3,000 students, faculty and staff when he said people are hungry for authentic human connection. He modeled a path for creating those connections by opening up about himself.
Measurable growth in the levels of isolation, loneliness, fear, depression and suicide in America are rooted in a culture that decouples people from morals, poor communication and bad generalizations, he said.
“This to me is the core problem that our democratic character is faced with. Many of our society’s great problems flow from people feeling not seen and known,” Brooks said. “There is a core democratic trait that we all have to get better at, and that is the trait of seeing each other deeply and being deeply seen. It’s a question of ... understanding each other.”
Brooks’ appearance at Brigham Young University is part of its forum series, which brings people to campus to speak around the theme of “The Pursuit of Democratic Character.” Brooks published a new book this year titled “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.”
During his address, Brooks was relatable, informative and funny. He joked that “I’m a conservative columnist at the New York Times, which is a job I liken to being the chief rabbi in Mecca.”
Brooks mapped out what he said was one of American society’s deepest problems — a cultural meritocracy embedded in the college admissions process that teaches that status and achievement are core societal values. Unfiltered by a moral system, that meritocracy teaches several lies.
“The first lie of the meritocracy is that career success makes you happy,” he said. “I’m the poster child for that’s not true.”
The other lies of the meritocracy are self-sufficiency, that you can make yourself happy; that life is an individual journey; that you can create your own truth outside the natural order of the universe; that you are what you accomplish; that you earn dignity and respect by attaching yourself to prestigious brands; and worst and most corrosive, he says, that people who achieve more are worth more than other people.
“If you want to tear apart your society, that’s a really good lie to introduce,” he said. “The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love, you earn your way to be loved. The anthropology of the meritocracy is that you’re not a soul to be saved, you’re a set of skills to be maximized.”
Brooks said American society presses people to remove their moral lens and see life purely through an economic lens, making many people morally numb. It happened to him, saying he careened into a personal ditch in 2013.
“When I succeeded, I found I was lonelier still,” he said.
After his kids grew up and his marriage ended, he was literally alone, a workaholic using work to avoid a spiritual and emotional problem.
“I was suffering the logical end of the cultural meritocracy, which is to be detached from other people, a lone nomad on the way up,” he said.
He knew he wasn’t alone in his loneliness, since 35% of Americans over 45 say they’re chronically lonely; the fastest-growing religious and political groups are unaffiliateds; the suicide rate is up 30% since 1999; and the teen suicide rate is up 70% since 2011.
“There are a lot of people who are very lonely, very isolated and very afraid,” Brooks said. “Part of it is the culture of the meritocracy. Part of it is probably the internet. The internet is a source of bad communication. We communicate through egos, comparison.”
He said Instagram is “My life is better than yours,” and Twitter is “Your opinion is stupider than mine.”
“We’re not programmed, and we weren’t created, to communicate on this shallow level. Somehow we’ve entered an age of bad generalization. We don’t see each other well.”
Brooks now seeks out people who are “geniuses at making you feel heard and understood,” whom he calls weavers because they weave inclusive communities, to learn how they do it well. He is the executive director of “Weave: The Social Fabric Project” at the nonpartisan Aspen Institute.
“There’s one skill at the center of any healthy family, company, classroom, community, university or nation — the ability to see someone else deeply, to know another person profoundly, to make them feel heard and understood,” Brooks said.
The first trait of “weavers” is they are rooted, knowing where they’re from, who their people are and that they have a secure base. Second, with that secure base, they go out as daring social explorers. Third, they are emotionally transparent. Fourth, they use suffering well, letting themselves be more vulnerable, more open.
“We all have moments of suffering, but we can either be broken by those moments or we can be broken open by them,” he said.
Real relationships like those exhibited by weavers create trust, fraternity and common humanity, which Brooks called core values for national building, even if it takes millions of connections to bind together a nation of 330 million Americans.
“That’s what happens in community,” he said. “The behaviors, the norms, the gifts get replicated and spread around from people who are deeply engaged and deeply seeing one another. To me, the end result of all this is a sort of joyfulness.”
A person may feel happy alone, he added, through accomplishments, but joy is something more.
“Happiness is the expansion of self, but joy is the merger of self,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing that happens when you forget where you end and something else begins, when you really are seeing deeply into each other.”
Brooks said Americans should be patient with the American project.
“We’re trying to do something that’s never been done before and something that’s phenomenally hard. We’re trying to build the first mass, multicultural democracy,” he said. “We should give ourselves a little grace. It’s a hard thing to do. It only gets done if we take the time to look into each other’s eyes” and learn about each other.
Brooks’ forum speech can be viewed free on demand at BYUtv.org.