“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