In his well-written book, The Social Animal, David Brooks does a terrific job of explaining the human condition as it really is in all its humanity and bases his input on lots of rich research. I enjoyed the book and Brook’s style. I especially enjoyed his characters and how he develops their lives. So does it matter where one comes from? What about the nature/nurture debate? Can a person who comes from a working-class family be as successful as one who comes from an upper-class background? How does science fit in? What does the data say? In his down-to-earth style, Brooks points his readers to the research, not merely to his personal biases. This made for a fascinating read. I especially loved the chapter on self-control, a trait often missing in many young people (and older people as well) in American culture.
Erica comes from a pretty dysfunctional background. But through a series of many persistent encounters, she finds herself attending a cutting-edge, college prep school where she discovers a penchant for the game of tennis. During one particular match, Erica gets in touch with her dark side and publically “loses it” in front of many people. She is asked to leave the match. Eventually, she calms down, but not without a good dose of humiliation and shame. But the school Erica attends uses this event as a teaching opportunity for everyone to learn the value of sportsmanship. Erica had to learn how to be self-controlled. But was this a natural tendency or an acquired skill? Is self-control about merely about one’s ability to reason? Or is it about exercising strength of will? According to the research, the most important step in the decision-making process is perception. If one’s character is to be built well, a person needs more than mere reason and will. Information alone will not change behavior, nor will one’s willingness to change. I thought this was fascinating! How often do we advocate for more information, more education? But as Brooks points out, “Information programs are not very effective in changing behavior.” Brooks continues:
Perceiving is not just a transparent way of taking in. It is a thinking and skillful process. Seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes, they are linked and basically simultaneous. The research of the past thirty years suggests that some people have taught themselves to perceive more skillfully than others. The person with good character has taught herself, or been taught by those around her, to see situations in the right way. When she sees something in the right way, she’s rigged the game [italics mine]. She’s triggered a whole network of unconscious judgments and responses in her mind, biasing her to act in a certain manner. Once the game has been rigged, then reason will have a much easier time. They will be up to the task of guiding proper behavior.
How we perceive our reality is imperative to one’s making good decisions and choosing healthy disciplines. One’s character is built in secret but is manifested in public. As Brooks says, “Small habits and proper etiquette reinforce certain positive ways of seeing the world.”
So, what happens with Erica? Does she allow her perceptions to control her behaviors, or does she allow her behaviors to control her perceptions? Eventually, Erica learns to control both her perceptions and her behaviors in spite of her occasional stumbles. According to the text, “Those who have habits and strategies to control their attention can control their lives.” With the help of her coach and input from her school, Erica builds in new habits and exercises, new strategies, and discovers a healthier side of her ability to cope with stresses in her life. But her life does not change over night. It takes time; it takes work. But it does change, as Brooks continues his narrative.
I went to an important workshop with my wife in June 2013. “The Center for Courage and Renewal,” an organization begun by Parker Palmer, one of my favorite authors, hosted this one-day workshop. The focus of the day was to examine The Thread You Follow in your life. This concept was birthed through a poem by William Stafford called “The Way It Is.”
There is a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you can do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
Throughout the day, our group of twenty people did a lot of personal reflection. The pedagogy utilized that day spoke deeply to me and to my life as an educator. We examined a lot of poetry and then shared our insights – sometimes some pretty deep stuff – with others in the room in several small-group sessions. I am not a “touchy-feely” person, but like Erica I ended up getting in touch with some good insights about myself that have been helpful ever since. I recommend this organization’s retreats to anyone who is looking to grow more deeply in personal self-awareness. It was a refreshing break from a traditional classroom.
Another poem we explicated was called “Where I’m From.” The author of the piece is George Ella Lyon. The poem is an honest look at one’s personal history.
I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush,
the Dutch elm
whose long gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.
I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls and the pass-it-ons,
from perk up and pipe down.
I’m from He restoreth my soul with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.
I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost to the auger
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.
Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded–
leaf-fall from the family tree
Our response to this piece was to come up with a like piece, summarizing our own identity. These words flowed from my pen as I contemplated the concept of where I was from:
I am from a hand-carried Samovar from Russian Revolution days.
I am 2. I am 9. I am 25, 41, and 57.
I am shaped by friends and mentors
by the Harolds and Arthurs
by the Dennises and Ramons.
I am Mexican, Egyptian, Rwandan, British, Russian.
I am African in thought – eastern more than western.
I am moods downward and moods upward – mostly upward.
I am fulfilled – Debbiefied, Dorothyfied, Arthurfied.
I am teacher, mentor, coach, tutor –
shaped and shaping.
I am biology, religion,
I am lost and found
I am others but am also me.
I am Teacher Man and tattoo.
I am a fraud by not really.
I am lies and truth.
I am paradox.
I question, ponder, push, inquire, change,
and change some more.
I am writer and fighter.
I am pug and Labrador.
I am wise; I am foolish.
I am bound; I am free.
I am health and leader –
formed by incompetence and by wisdom.
I am new.
I am glad.
I am guitars and samovars.
Like Erica, my background was not always full of hope. My parents struggled to get by. Their marriage was filled with pain and misunderstanding. Although they stayed together, I wouldn’t say my parents were close. They did their own thing. Dad hunted and fished a lot; sometimes I tagged along. Mom drank quietly, secretly, desperately. There was not a lot of good modeling on self-control. In fact, to this day there is still not much positive mental health in my family. But I vowed to be different. “I am writer and fighter. I am pug and Labrador.” Like Erica, with the help of others, I have become healthier. But it has been an uphill battle. One’s roots do affect one’s life. But one is never hopeless if he or she is willing to work, willing to change, willing to grow. We are not scripted to fail – unless we choose to follow the script we have been given at birth. Where I’m from is not necessarily where I will end up. And the cool thing is that we could start this new journey any time, even today.
 David Brooks. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement (New York: Random House, 2011)
 Ibid., 126.
 Ibid., 127.
 Ibid., 128.
 Ibid., 131.