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David Brooks on emerging from loneliness to find ‘moral renewal’

In his new book, "The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life," New York Times columnist and NewsHour regular David Brooks explores the current American cultural moment, in which he argues we have become self-centered and cognitive at the expense of joy and community. Brooks sits down with Judy Woodruff to discuss his personal struggles with social isolation and his choice to be "broken open."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As all of us know, life is filled with peaks and valleys.

    Tonight, David Brooks diverges from politics to share a personal journey marked by loneliness and sparked by the inspiration of others who have overcome life-altering obstacles.

    That's the subject of David's latest book, and it's the newest addition to our Bookshelf, "The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life."

    David Brooks, you have written another book, "The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life."

    And what you do here is, you say the life that many of us are leading is a life that is self-centered, that this is a moment of transition in our society. What's wrong with what we're doing right now?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes. This is a book about moral renewal, how individual and societies turn themselves around.

    And it starts with the idea that we have slipped into some bad values. We're too individualistic, when we should be a little more communal. We're too cognitive, up in our head, and analytical, when we should be more emotional and relational. We steer our kids toward career success, and not toward moral joy.

    And when you have bad values, you steer — you end up in a bad place. And that happened to me personally five or six years ago, which was really the start of this book.

    But I found people who realized the core truth, you can't solve your problems on the level of consciousness at which you created them. They went deeper into themselves. And they discovered a level of ability for care. And they lead marvelous lives.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How did you know that this new kind of living, this second mountain, as you describe it, is the answer?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How did that come to you?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, I went through a bad period in 2013.

    My kids were — gone away to college or going. My marriage had ended. A lot of my friendships were in the conservative movement, but I wasn't that kind of conservative anymore, so a lot of my friendships went away.

    And so I was living alone in an apartment. And I had valued time over people. I had valued productivity over relationship. So I didn't have a lot of weekend friends. I had workday friends that were professional, but not weekend friends.

    And I had vast stretches of loneliness. If you went to my drawers, where there used to be — where there should have been silverware in the kitchen, I had Post-it notes. Where there should have been plates, I had stationery, because I was just working. I was using workaholism as therapy for an emotional and spiritual problem.

    So, I was down in the valley. And I went through that period. And I discovered you can either be broken or you can be broken open. And some people get broken. They turn fearful in their bad moments, and they lash out. They turn hostile and violent and tribal. And they're full of resentments.

    But some people get broken open. You just realize the depths of yourself, and you realize that only spiritual and emotional food is going to fill those depths. So, you think, I got to change my world view.

    So, I spent five years looking at people who had done it and trying to learn from them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have a number of observations in here.

    One of them that struck me, "Our society has become a conspiracy against joy."

  • David Brooks:

    One of the things I really discovered in the course of this process was that it's useful to make a distinction between happiness and joy.

    We spend a lot of time thinking about happiness. And happiness is when you win your victory, when something goes well, you got a promotion. And happiness is an expansion of self.

    But joy is when the self disappears, when you transcend yourself. There's a woman in the book who I interviewed in Ohio who the worst thing happened to her that could happen. She came home one Sunday, and her husband had killed their kids and himself.

    And now she leads a life of pure service, pure gift. She has a free pharmacy. She teaches at Ohio University. She helps women who've suffered violence. And she said: "I did it partly out of anger. I wanted to show, whatever that guy tried to do to me, he didn't do it. I was going to make a difference in the world."

    And so there is anger there, but there's also the joy of self-giving.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is this a prescription for everybody? Does it work for people who are struggling just to get by?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I think it works for everybody.

    I have been with rich people and poor people, and everybody needs spiritual growth. Everybody has a soul. It gives us infinite value and dignity. And what the soul does is, it yearns for righteousness.

    In our business, we cover a lot of bad people in wars, crime, genocide. I have never met anybody who didn't want to be good. And I didn't — never met anybody whose life didn't fall apart if they thought they were leading a bad and meaningless life.

    And so, on that level of soul, we all need to feed the yearning to be good, to try to be a good person.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you relate all this to what's going on in our country right now, in our politics? How does it connect to that?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    I think, at bottom, the Trump moment is a spiritual and moral crisis. We just treat each other badly. We're not compassionate towards one another. We stereotype, rather than see the dignity of each human person.

    And I think it flows out of loneliness and disconnection. A lot of people who voted for him, their communities are falling apart. And they needed something new.

    And then we're in a tribal warfare where we don't communicate with each other well, we don't see deeply into each other's souls, we don't befriend one another. And so we get this volleys of hatred.

    And so, to me, our problems are, we have political problems, we have economic problems, but we also have spiritual and moral problems. And we have become not great about talking about them, because it always seems like, oh, you're the problem. We don't live for relationship. And that's the change that has to happen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are there others out there pushing these ideas? Is this part of a greater movement? Or is it — how do you describe it?

  • David Brooks:

    I physically wear this little pin on my lapel occasionally from time to time on the "NewsHour."

    I started something called — at the Aspen Institute called Weave: The Social Fabric Project. And I meet weavers wherever you go. And these are people who are weaving relationship. They are weaving community.

    I met a woman named Lisa Fitzpatrick in New Orleans. She was driving. She turned and saw a two — 10 — a 10- and 11-year-old boy looking terrified. The boys held up a gun and they shot her in the face. And it was their gang initiation thing. And she said: "I wasn't the victim and they weren't the victims. We were trapped in this war that started long before us."

    So, she gave herself and — she quit her job as a health care executive. She works with gang members. She works with community members. And now she too has one of these second families, where kids just show up at her home. They knock on the door. They're a bunch of — 40 17-year-olds hanging around this 55-year-old woman. And she says: "Why are you hanging around with me?" And they say: "Because we knocked on the door. You opened it."

    And so that longing for community — these Weavers are leading us into a better future. My basic theory of social change is that culture changes when a small group of people find a better way to live, and the rest of us copy them.

    And these weavers have found a better way to live. And I wear this to celebrate them and to illuminate them and hope they can lead us to a better future.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, the book is definitely worth reading. It's worth talking about, reflecting on, "The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life," looking for a better way.

    David Brooks, thank you.

  • David Brooks:

    Oh, thank you so much.

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