We are a mystery. A beautiful, complicated mystery. Sociologists, psychologists, economists, marketing analysts, politicians, biologists, educators—all seek to understand, interpret, and respond to the nature of humans. And yet, we quickly come to a place where a person or group responds “irrationally” or out of character from what we would expect. Journalist and commentator David Brooks, in his book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, suggests that our culture’s focus on the rational, conscious mind of individuals misses the reality that most decisions occur unconsciously in our emotions and our internal desire to bond with other people. He begins, “If the outer mind hungers for status, money, and applause, the inner mind hungers for harmony and connection—those moments when self-consciousness fades away and a person is lost in a challenge, a cause, the love of another or the love of God.” In other words, his thesis, told as a fictional narrative, “emphasizes the role of the inner mind—the unconscious realm of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, character traits, and social norms. This is the realm where character is formed and street smarts grow.”
We are shaped—and we shape—by our relationships with others and the world around us. And while our responses to the world may seem deliberate and logical, a deeper response happens in our gut, where we long for connection and harmony. Our very identities are changed/transformed by our relationships with others. Brooks writes, “The desire for limerence [the pleasure gained from harmony] is at its most profound during those transcendent moments when people feel themselves fused with nature and with God, when the soul lifts up and a feeling of oneness with the universe pervades their being.”
Brooks’ text provides much to absorb or chew on, including:
The unconscious mind wants stories
We like arcs; beginnings, middles, ends; model making to explain what’s going on. I thought about this, and how much the stories of Harold and Erica, Rob and Julia, captured my attention and drew me into their (very ordinary, though middle/upper middle class) lives. I thought about how a narrative-style of preaching resonates more with me than expository preaching. And I thought about how authors like Wendell Berry, Madeline L’Engle, Frederick Buechner, and others, have crossed non-fiction and fiction genres to communicate their ideas, and how it is their stories more than their essays, that stay in my memory. We want examples, the more specific the better. This might be why Bobby Braddock’s country music songs resonate with so many Americans, because they tell detailed stories, “where emotion is not something to be endured; it’s something to be embraced:”
Kept some letters by his bed
Dated nineteen sixty-two
He had underlined in red
Every single “I love you”
I went to see him just today
Oh, but I didn’t see no tears
All dressed up to go away
First time I’d seen him smile in years—He Stopped Loving her Today
Can we trust ourselves?
We (at least I) have been taught not to trust our emotions; they are not reliable. As Brooks points out, “research pointed out ways our unconscious processes lead us to deviate from the economic model of perfectly rational man.” Our emotions and feelings delude us to reality. Which also fits well with the model of the rational (thinking) man and the irrational (emotional) woman model. And yet. Rather than defining a human in these binary terms, we can recognize that God created us much more rounded than one-dimensional. Rather than pitting intuition versus logic, Brooks recognizes that “we need both systems to thrive—the conscious and unconscious, the rational and the emotional.”
We are not as strong as we think we are
Following with themes I’ve observed from the past two weeks, Brooks’ narrative and reflections bring us back to humility. He writes, “One of the constant implications of this research is that we have to be completely modest about what we know or can know. We don’t even know ourselves, let alone other people…. We have a constant tendency to be overconfident.” The “hubris of experts” is a danger, especially for those of us who truly are “experts” in something (say, a doctor of ministry). While we’ve done the research, studied, written, and experienced, we risk overstepping our self-assurance to a point where we might be wrong, or even convey that delightful knowledge in a way that turns people off. (Here is a dark side of expert knowledge). Brooks challenges, “the most important thing is to develop an attitude of epistemological humility, an awareness of how little you are likely to know and how little you will understand the things you do know. Much of life is about failure, whether we acknowledge it or not.”
While I enjoyed/appreciated the story told by Brooks, and the thesis he built with it, I also missed something in the telling: tradition. It was amusing to follow the entire life cycle of a few people perpetually in present time. But the reality is that we build on the past, on others who came before us, and on the repeated motions of doing what’s been done before (and after) us. We did not get to explore “how traditions preserve the non-rational forms of wisdom that underwrite family meals, relational loyalty, care for the next generation, love for the old, and skilled and vocational practice.” This absence of social tradition misses out on the relational depth of the Trinity and the richness of a true “social animal.”
 See Brooks’ TED Talk, “For centuries we’ve inherited a view of human nature based on the notion that we’re divided selves, that reason is separated from the emotions, and that society progresses to the extant that reason can suppress the passions. And it’s led to a view of human nature that we’re rational individuals that respond in straightforward ways to incentives.”
 David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (New York: Random House, 2011).
 Ibid., ix.
 Ibid., viii.
 Ibid., 14.
 Ibid., 209.
 Ibid., 378.
 “Why did he finally turn his back on his great love? Because he’s dead. Only death could end his love” for his wife who’d died years before.
 Brooks, 379.
 Ibid., 380.
 Ibid, 381.
 Ibid., 382.
 Glasman, Maurice. “How to be a Better Person.” New Statesman 140, no. 5057 (Jun 13, 2011): 61-62