Friends don’t let Friends read David Brooks

November 9, 2016. The day I quit twitter. The day I subscribed to the New York Times.

Originally, I enjoyed the Opinion Pages, particularly the Editorial Board, Paul Krugman, Charles M. Blow, and David Brooks. There was something about Brooks’ writing that was intriguing yet gentle. He wrote with a soft, conservative tone—something I couldn’t say for Krugman and especially not for Blow—in an approachable, almost Socratic way. He does this, I later discovered, by employing stereotypes, presenting false claims as facts, and generally misrepresenting data in a way that is easily digestible. It took a while before I realized that Brooks’ was often saying nothing of value or absurdities, such as his now infamous “Abortion Memo“, which was widely panned and criticized when published in early 2018.

(For those wondering about how I get my news now, Jamelle Bouie has replaced David Brooks in my consumption, and paid subscriptions to The Atlantic, The Intercept, and the Wikipedia Current Events Portal has supplemented the New York Times.)

So when I was sent a David Brooks article by a friend several weeks ago, I was very hesitant to click on the link. The op-ed is called Five Lies Our Culture Tells, and it began by Brooks writing that he was basically wrong about much of what he was preaching during the Obama years. Off to a good start.

If I were to strip away the politics of the day and try to distill the difference between liberal and conservative thought, I would say that one side views issues using a lens favoring individual, equitable access to opportunity where the other favors societal cohesion and flourishing. In this light, David Brooks may have some good thoughts about these issues relating to aspirations within a divided and unhealthy culture. I read on. He described these five lies that our culture tells us as:

  • Career success is fulfilling
  • I can make myself happy
  • Life is an individual journey
  • You have to find your own truth
  • Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people

OK, where am I going with this? This isn’t a post about politics, though I have already written here about politics more than I typically like to. This isn’t a post where I am going to be discussing or critiquing what Brooks has to say in his op-ed. Rather, the post relates to more things I learned while traveling up the west coast, particularly during the beginning of my journey into the Pacific Northwest.

When I was sent this article, I was nearing the end of my travels, spending much time alone, alternating between painful loneliness and glorious solitude. The journey was a form of wanderlust, a proto-digital nomad quest. In some ways, it embraced the notion of Brooks’ middle three “lies”: I can make myself happy, life is an individual journey, and you can find your own truth.

Much of modern culture centers around individuals, their hero’s journeys, successes, and failures. With mobile internet, anyone can share and consume virtually any content they like. On this trip, I wrote these blog posts and shared bad selfies on Instagram. While I had and have no ambitions about the reception of my content, they were certainly created revolving around an individual, me. That I be alone and without attachments was almost required to embark on this trip. There’s a sense of wild freedom from being able to pick up and take off whenever, wherever.

On the other side of things, this sense of freedom or this lack of roots can leave one feeling hollow in the long run. Typically, wanderlust is associated with people in their early 20’s who are just leaving home.

The hero’s journey is not always good for the hero. You never see what happens to the hero after the movie or book is over. You don’t see the context around every picturesque Instagram post. I have one friend who posts gorgeous pictures of himself traveling all over the world. One comes to mind where he is on some cliff in Hawaii playing the guitar. All I thought was, “so you hiked miles by yourself lugging a guitar and DSLR camera, spent who knows how long setting up the shot and then editing the photo, just so you could get one picture of you nonchalantly appearing to play music in paradise? That sounds awful.”

Shortly after graduating college, in a conversation about the merits of grad school, my dad mentioned to me that my priorities would change as I aged. I didn’t believe him. I thought that my goals, ambition, and mindset were pretty much solid at that point. And I was 100% wrong. In just the past ten years or so, many of my priorities have changed. It was during this solo journey that I could reflect on it and near the end of it know that I am ready to return to work and home and the other obligations of living in a society.

Yes, growing roots and creating connections to a place will in fact make it harder to pick up and take off at the drop of a dime. But the meaning created in building a life and community can certainly offset that freedom. In fact, the effort spent in building these relationships and communities that require constant upkeep is part of what makes them so valuable.

So for the next four days I will continue to sleep in and fill my waking time with books and Marvel movies. After that I will return to work and see what I can build and maintain next.

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