November 23, 2016
Commit to Love
an evening with David Brooks
by Beau Brawner
by Beau Brawner
Reflection on the New York Times columnist's keynote address at the SMBHC's 2016 Fall Convocation
The Gertrude Ford Center for the Performing Arts has seen its fair share of successful personas—two Supreme Court Justices, the late Justice Scalia and Justice Kagan, renowned documentarian Ken Burns, and renowned concert pianist Bruce Levingston to name a few. It hosted the first Presidential Debate between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, and features performances and presentations including TEDx talks, with theater productions and musicals to boot. On that same stage on October 20th stood David Brooks: a commentator on “PBS Newshour,” a regular columnist for The New York Times, and an author of several books, including The Road to Character and The Social Animal. He teaches at Yale University, as a Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute of Global Affairs.
Brooks took the podium without the pomp and circumstance that followed those who had come before him. He presented a simple oration eased in by jokes that ran the gamut from religion and politics to his personal life.
“I’m a conservative columnist for the New York Times,” he quipped, “which is like being the head Rabbi in Mecca.” With his brand of observational humor and a healthy sense of self-awareness, Mr. Brooks seized the opportunity to comment on the political election and American life. He played doctor first and foremost, diagnosing both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump with severe loneliness - a symptom he has noticed increase in most everyone in the age of social media. It seems, ironically, in our attempts never to miss a moment of anybody else’s life, we often put our own on pause.
Then, like a boxer dancing back and forth across the ring, he returned to the election for another jab and forecasted his warning for the GOP: It will be a party in peril, with its major support base of uneducated white voters dwindling, it must change soon or be overcome. Yet with the overwhelming victory for Republicans across the House, the Senate and the Presidency, it is now difficult to envision a future without a strong conservative presence in the years ahead.
Mr. Brooks wove social and political issues together throughout his address. The tactic seemed effortless, undoubtedly a quality picked up from years of social commentary and writing about the very issues about which he now spoke. And in the midst of connecting specific current events to social realities, Mr. Brooks recalled several anecdotes of peculiar problems that afflicted his students at Yale. One that struck me as particularly relevant involved a student who said they treated problems in their lives as fires to be put out. A midterm exam, for example, would be one such fire. A thesis? Certainly a fire. But friendships, Mr. Brooks emphasized, were not considered fires and were treated with less urgency by his student. He cautioned the audience to be wary of running through life in constant search of the next fire, only to see a new column of dark smoke take its place.
To combat this listless direction toward our goals and ambitions, he urged us to carefully consider how we approach love and commitment, specifically to: a vocation, a faith, a family and a community. The ultimate goal of these most basic aspects of our lives, he suggested, is to achieve a purpose in life.
Perhaps the most important idea that Mr. Brooks reinforced throughout the night was optimism. “I always feel so rejuvenated, in college campuses across the country,” he said in his closing statements. In a year of polarizing politics and unprecedented public and personal attacks from two Presidential candidates, strings of terrorist atrocities, and a growing societal divide in America, David Brooks gave a positive point of view of America. His mix of optimism and scrutiny to social detail are something desperately needed right now and I think that we in Oxford, as a center of learning and culture, should treat this as a challenge for our future.
As I sat on the balcony of the Ford Center and reflected on Mr. Brooks' speech, I felt a strong sense of awe—one that was surely shared by all in attendance. That is what we need more of: a sense of community that is comfortable enough to evoke collective introspection; one that refuses to condemn—or worse, fear—an individual’s opinion just because it begins with “as a Republican” or “because I’m a Democrat.” A community willing to confront hard truths without becoming hard-hearted to them – that is what we must become, together.