When a heart is empty – words from conservative pundit David Brooks

I have shared before David Brooks is one of my favorite conservative pundits. I read his columns and have read two of his books, “The Road to Character” and “The Social Animal.” I even went to hear him speak when he came to town, as he focused on remembering community and community gathering places. Monday’s editorial column by Brooks is called “When a heart is empty.”

Brooks highlights how an unfeeling, self-absorbed author named Emmanuel Carrere is forever altered by a crisis, when he loses his granddaughter to a horrible tsunami. Per Brooks, Carrere “develops a deep and perceptive capacity to see the struggles of others” and he writes about the change in “Lives Other Than My Own.”

Brooks uses this change to contrast it being “opposite of the blindness Donald Trump displayed in quotes reported by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic and Bob Woodward in his latest book about the administration, ‘Rage’

Brooks goes on to say “Trump can’t seem to fathom the emotional experience of their lives (the deceased soldiers he called ‘losers’ and ‘suckers’) – their love for those they fought for, the fears they faced down, the resolve to risk their lives nonetheless.

If he can’t see that, he can’t understand the men and women in uniform serving around him. He can’t understand the inner devotion that drives people to public service, which is supposed to be the core of his job.

The same sort of blindness is on display in the Woodward quotes. It was stupid of Trump to think he could downplay COVID-19 when he already knew it had the power of a pandemic. It was stupid to think the American people would panic if he told the truth. It was stupid to talk to Woodward in the first place…

It is moral and emotional stupidity. He blunders so often and so badly because he has a narcissist’s inability to get inside the hearts and minds of other people.”

There is more, but the gist of the piece can be gleaned from these quotes. Brooks said earlier this year, “Donald Trump does not have a sense of decency or empathy.” He reiterates this theme above. And, there is a line from one of my favorite political movies “The American President” with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. “Being president is entirely about character.”

Over-politicized and under-moralized

I had the pleasure of hearing columnist and author David Brooks speak the other night. He was invited to my city by a church known for being inclusive. While his speech and following Q/A was filled with poignant quotes and observations, his caution that “we are over-politicized and under-moralized” resonated with me.

His speech was far more focused on America’s changes over time than it was political. He noted we were much more community oriented before 1968, but still had many faults around racIsm, bigotry and gender inequality. He noted the gains made post-1968, but we tore down institutional cache and became more individual minded, even more narcissistic in nature, as he explained with a few key ¬†statistics. He thoughtfully spoke of how we have come to the current tribalism. He noted tribalism is based more on fear and hatred of others than it is love for your tribe.

This was occurring long before Trump and he said he frankly did not think Trump would win. He said people are disenfranchised and want to¬†be heard. To Trump’s credit he reached out to these folks, yet he sold a message of fear and isolationism. An example of one of Brooks’ quotes is “Trump is the wrong answer to the right question.”

From his travels, reading and teaching, he noted people are thirsty for moral direction. We desire a moral compass. We want to do the right thing, but we have become so lonely and alienated (he again accentuated with statistics) we have limited avenues to a community mindset. We are not talking to one another and have looked less to institutions and more to movements.

Early on he defined we are consumed by both a “desiring heart” and “yearning soul.” We want to love someone and belong. We want to find contentment for our soul nurturing it. This is why we long for a sense of community or family. He noted an answer to a previous time in the 1890s when we became so disenfranchised, we saw community movements that led to better working conditions, the suffragette movement, the temperance movement, environmental protection, etc.

That is likely the answer we need to diminish this tribalism. We need to seek community oriented solutions. He said our places of faith can be more helpful, but need to focus on our being better people and picking each other up. He noted an example of a man in Shreveport who helped identify a community house in each area of the city. The house would be a place where BBQs, community events, parties et al could happen.

When someone asked what is a key takeaway, he laughed and said that is your job as I just throw out ideas. Then, he eloquently noted a story about a psychologist who was captured by the Nazis and placed in a detention camp. The question no longer was what should I do with my life? The question was now what does life have in store for me? He said that may be the better question we should ask ourselves.

As he left the stage, I witnessed a humble man who seemed to be saying through his body language, why are you clapping for me? He deserved the adoration. Even the minister of the church noted Brooks’ message had a strong sense of a Judeo-Christian ethic. We need more voices like him. We need more discussions like these.