Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

What’s it all for?

Written by: on January 15, 2015

“Modern society has created a giant apparatus for the cultivation of hard skills, while failing to develop the moral and emotional faculties down below. Children are coached on how to jump through a thousand hoops. Yet by far the most important decisions they will make are about whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise, and how to control impulses. On these matters, they are almost entirely on their own. We are good at talking about material incentives, but bad about talking about emotions and intuitions. We are good at teaching technical skills, but when it comes to the most important things, like character, we have almost nothing to say.” [i]

I couldn’t agree more. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve heard my own dad tell me in his thick Irish accent, “They teach you how to drive a car, but no one teaches you how to be a good father.” Of course, he has a point, and if such lessons had been available, I’m sure he would have jumped at the chance.

This book is an attempt by Brooks to explain and understand what shapes and influences human behaviour beyond the rational and conscious. An exploration of the influence of unconscious drives upon individuals. As he correctly points out, children require more than technical lessons alone to survive, let alone blossom in this world in the face of all its complexities and challenges. Human behaviour and actions need to be understood beyond the capacities of rational consciousness alone and for Brooks, there needs to be a greater emphasis upon the importance of unconscious influences upon human life. Within these parameters of the “unconscious” he includes emotions, intuition, biases, longings, character traits and so on. All those more hidden motives and drives we all carry: the “impulsive, emotional, sensitive, and unpredictable.” [ii]

I certainly admire Brooks for telling his story, and for doing so through a non-conventional way, through the medium of two fictitious characters, Harold and Erica. He takes the reader on a journey of how they “matured and deepened themselves during the course of their lives.” [iii] Personally, this is a subject that is currently very pertinent on my mind these days. I grapple in answering difficult questions such as, how can I encourage Milly* to stop sleeping with her boyfriend before marriage? How can I help Brian* learn to better control his temper, and help Patrick* become more emotionally stable?[iv] How it is possible to show these beloved members of my church the way to a successful and happy life in God?

Although Brooks succeeds in helping the reader appreciate the need to appreciate and better understand unconscious drives and motives, I admit that I struggle to understand where it all leads. How does he really define success? Although Brooks, no doubt, has something important to offer in this field of understanding human behaviour, I believe he doesn’t go far enough. Why? Because I believe he simply doesn’t explore enough significant influences. Will Wilkinson writes in his review of The Social Animal, “Sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll, and church may all be overrated, but they speak to something deep in us about which Brooks has almost nothing interesting to say.” [v] He has a point.

One thing I found disappointing about Brooks’ attempt of portraying Harold as a successful human being is the quality of life and it’s meaning in the years before his death. Although he was no doubt blessed to be able to sit and enjoy the beauty of nature on his Apsen porch, enjoying the loving care of his wife Erica and nursing staff, his soul still mused, “What is it all for?” If, at the close of his life, he still struggled to answer the most profound questions of life in a satisfactory way, Brooks’ philosophy is surely still wanting. Although he attempts to address a worthy subject, I just find it inadequate. Personally, I wouldn’t want to feel as troubled as Harold did before he died. I’d want to know my personal life’s conviction, it’s purpose and meaning, and think that I’d lived it out to the best of my ability. I’d want my life to be more than “deepening myself”. That I left behind a lasting legacy that benefitted many people on this earth. Harold’s end, in my opinion, is almost tragic: “Harold entered the hidden kingdom entirely and then lost consciousness forever.”[vi] What exactly is that hidden kingdom? It certainly isn’t heaven as Brooks makes it clear that Harold never tasted a “Divine transcendence.” [vii]

If Harold’s final years and inner struggle are anything to go by, Brooks does not provide an adequate philosophy of life, even though I commend his focus on shaping and developing one’s character. Life is more than simply knowing oneself, and having a pleasant view to look at in one’s dying days. Life is more than choosing not to succumb to the foolishness of materialism and egocentric living.

Brooks leads me to ask, what should our ends look like? How would you want to die? What is the purpose and point of shaping our characters well? Yes, Brooks is successful in exposing the superficiality of rational humanity, but he fails to answer some of the bigger questions of life centred around its all-important meaning and purpose. This wasn’t, by any stretch, the happiest story I’ve ever read.


[i] David Brooks: The Social Animal: A Story of How Success Happens (London, UK: Short Books, 2011), xiv

[ii] Brooks, xviii

[iii] Brooks, xvi

[iv] * Names have been changed.

[v] Will Wilkerson. The Social Animal by David Brooks: A Scornful Review. Forbes, 3 October 2011. http://www.forbes.com/sites/willwilkinson/2011/03/10/the-social-animal-by-david-brooks-a-review/2/

[vi] Brooks, 376

[vii] Brooks, 374

About the Author

Liz Linssen

10 responses to “What’s it all for?”

  1. Deve Persad says:

    I would agree, Liz, that this wasn’t the happiest of stories to read; however I think that Brooks achieved his goal of providing beginning points for the various elements that we, as humans, encounter and navigate over the course of our lives. Interesting, therefore, to realize that at the end, neither character seems satisfied or fulfilled despite their “success” through their experiences.
    You also said, “Human behaviour and actions need to be understood beyond the capacities of rational consciousness alone and for Brooks, there needs to be a greater emphasis upon the importance of unconscious influences upon human life.”
    In light of the two characters we read about and then in relation to our own personal pursuits, how do you keep aware of the fact that there are unconscious influences upon your life? How do allow room for positive unconscious influence and protect yourself against those that are harmful?

    • Liz Linssen says:

      Hi Deve
      Thanks so much for your feedback, and also for your great questions: how do you keep aware of the fact that there are unconscious influences upon your life? How do allow room for positive unconscious influence and protect yourself against those that are harmful?
      In attempting to answer, I think prayer plays a big role in the first question. As I’m sure you also experience, through the day to day role of being pastor, one encounters all kinds of relationship problems or challenges that personally, I have to constantly bring to God in prayer. When I do that, I ask for his insight, his wisdom and intervention in resolving such issues. And He never disappoints. I love the revelation He brings in helping my weaknesses.
      In answer to the second question, this is something I’m working on. Especially learning to recognise those influences that are harmful. God has a way of teaching us these things, doesn’t He? Thank you for your helpful questions!

  2. Julie Dodge says:

    In my slow recuperation from shoulder surgery last month, I have found myself with more time to watch movies (reading was useless for a while – I couldn’t retain a thing.) So I watched “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” In it, the people gather around a super computer, asking it the meaning of life. The computer tells them to come back in 6500 years and it will answer. So, 6500 years later, the people return, and the computer says the answer to the meaning of life is “42.” Of course that is a most unsatisfying answer. Later the movie suggests that the meaning of life is buried in all of our questions, from “Is she the one?” To a thousand other questions. The implication is that meaning is found in simply living. Which I find still inadequate. Because like you, I believe, rather know, that our meaning is in Christ. Our fulfillment comes through relationship with the Father. Our purpose is fulfilled by glorifying God. Thus, like the supercomputer, we can try to calculate all of the connections in our physical bodies to suggest how things work and what satisfaction or meaning that produces, but apart from God, the answer is still 42.

    • Liz Linssen says:

      I love your feedback Julie! I’ll have to watch that movie 🙂
      Yes, I really felt that although Harold had so much at the end in terms of loving relationships, a nice home etc., he still lacked so much. The whole dying passage was awful I felt. No security, so many unknowns.
      Like you, I also think that while there is much joy to be experienced in the simple things of life, we still need more than that. As you say, only God can truly satisfy us. I totally agree Julie. Thanks so much for your response.

  3. Miriam Mendez says:

    Liz, you bring up some very interesting and profound thoughts. I wonder if the question Harold asked, “What is it all for?” is a question that needs to asked daily instead of at the end of one’s life. Being with people who are at the end of their lives, the question of significance, the question of legacy is one that is often asked. Yet, I wonder if we ask it on a daily basis, will we need to ask it at the end? I like what you wrote, “Life is more than simply knowing oneself, and having a pleasant view to look at in one’s dying days.” Thank you Liz for your insights.

    • Liz Linssen says:

      Hi Miriam
      Thank you for your feedback 🙂
      Gosh, yes, you’re so right! Asking ourselves, what is it all for? is something we should ask ourselves daily. Perhaps by doing that, we would accomplish much more or change the way we do things. 🙂

  4. Michael Badriaki says:

    Dear Liz, your post is certainly thought provoking. Like you I found Brook’s happiest story to be on shaky grounds. However, I thought Brook was persuasive in showing that human beings in fact need to be ‘conscious’ of the unconscious aspects of our brain life. I believe that Brook’ work can help the reader to make connections between the market forces and behavioral economics among other spheres. I listened to Brook’s ted talk on some of the topics in his book and he clarified that his book did not consider the theological perspective of the brain life.
    This helped me approach Brook’s material knowing that I would learn a lot from his argument about the impact of rationality and the unconscious part of the human brain. I found his treatment of character as part of the unconscious really intriguing.

    Thank you!

    • Liz Linssen says:

      Hi Michael
      Thanks so much for your feedback. It’s interesting to hear that through the TED talks, Brooks didn’t intend to address theological questions. I find that curious however, as he did mention the question of God on a few occasions. As a reader, I got the impression that he appreciated that this is a significant area, but because he didn’t have any answers, simply disregarded the whole issue.
      Anyway, thank you Michael for your feedback 🙂

  5. Ashley says:

    Liz! I love your post, especially as your struggled with real-life counseling questions from your parishioners!

    Our sermon in the traditional service today was living life with extraordinary purpose. The pastor made the point that every individual is called to a different purpose – some to be great fathers, some to be great minds, some to build rockets, others to find cures. The point was to find your purpose, no matter what it is, and live it extraordinarily. I wonder if it’s that simple? I was reading one of those posts on Facebook the other day, and it was titled something to the effect of “5 Regrets of Dying People.” One was the regret of not spending enough time with loved ones. Another was taking vacations and having leisurely time with friends and family. I wonder if these things ranked high with Harold on his list of regrets? Perhaps he was having trouble living in to his purpose.

    And so ends Ashley’s ramblings! A happy Sunday to you, Liz!

  6. Hey Liz, great overview of the book. I think too often we may look toward these secular writers and expect too much. I read people like Brooks similar to the way I eat chicken. I eat the meat and throw out the bones. Brooks provides a lot of great insight into the science of emotions and how and what makes people tick. Understanding how life is to be seen at the end of it is left for those like you who have a relationship with Jesus to provide the comfort as the dying “cross over.” I would not expect Brooks to provide the real meaning of life nor even the proper reflection of it for his readers. I appreciate his science and his summation of all the studies. This information helps me understand more about human nature and how to apply the TRUTH to situations such as the ones you encounter as a pastor. Though, the ultimate help comes from your time in prayer and your personal study in the Word I do believe that minsters can glean helpful knowledge from the social sciences and the emotional studies presented by Brooks. Bless you as you minister to your flock. Please great them all from me.

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