Bring Meaning to Work and Purpose to Spirituality
The New York Times columnist, David Brooks, wrote a new book called “The Road to Character”. It’s a guaranteed best seller thanks to his masterful blend of a conservative outlook and astute observations of contemporary American life. I first heard about his new book on a PBS interview and pre-ordered it before it became available. In the meantime, I read one of his previous books, called “BoBos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There”. I couldn’t stop laughing from beginning to end of reading that book so much so that my wife was beginning to question my sanity … It was by far the most insightful and honest work on the contemporary American elite culture that I have ever read, free of pretentions and yet full of sympathy. After all the careful parenting, climbing and success achieved by the meritocracts, the new name given by Brooks for the new American upper class, their rewards are to be lonely souls occupying lush offices, spending weekends hunting indigenous furniture for their expensive suburban homes and schmoozing with other equally sophisticated bobos (Bourgeois + Bohemian). Even though David Brooks wrote sympathetically about the life style of BoBos, making the point that it is preferable than the blood spilling world wars fought by their parents’ generation, one couldn’t help feel the melancholy of it. In writing his new book, “The Road to Character”, David Brooks stated clearly that it is to save his own soul from the aimless drift of the BoBo paradise. If nothing else, one must admire his courage of conscience. I once lived in a Unitarian church community full of BoBos. The minister tried to revive the community spirit by criticizing the narcissist and elitist life style of his flock. He ended up booted from the church! As David Brooks pointed out, the BoBos are meritocrats, worked hard to get where they are and feel superior in history. They are not to be disrespected and/or dismissed light heartedly.
In his new book, David Brooks tries to challenge the BoBo life style from a different direction, from within. He argues that it is in BoBos’ own interests to pay more attention to our inner life or character development (Adam II) as well as worldly success (Adam I). He is still sympathetic to the BoBos in the historic context but argues that it has gone too far and it is now time for a course correction. He then uses a number of historical figures to demonstrate that this kind of course correction or character development has been done before and is both necessary and inspiring.
So far so good. Like David Brooks, I am myself a beneficiary of the meritocracy ethic of our age. As a first generation immigrant, I could never have asked for more than what this country has given me. In examining my own life experiences and choices, I have to conclude that David Brooks shines more as a wise historian than an inspiring visionary. He has delivered a courageous and wise wake-up call but hardly an enlightening roadmap for those living in the BoBo paradise. Perhaps that’s as he intended. Or perhaps he is limited by his conservative outlook – preserving history counts more than creating new future. From my perspective history provides necessary lessons that we must incorporate but we must also create new settings or visions that are not merely repeats but transformations of history. In the absence of such a new vision, character building is ultimately aimless, frustrating and lost in melancholy. What could that new vision look like? It has to be a new creation story. Not by God or Superman. But the emergence of the Human Cosmos as a natural phenomenon.