I’ve said a lot of positive things about David Brooks over the years. I not only agree with the guy a lot, but I tend to wish I had written what he did. I feel like I should have written it. His thoughts just run that much in sync with my own.
I’ve never thought about why, but maybe this is why. Or part of why…
I’ve been enjoying this new app from The New York Times — NYT Audio. It’s particularly great for my walks around the neighborhood, a sort of supplement to NPR One.
Anyway, today’s NYT Audio offered something I haven’t heard before in that format. It was a piece by Brooks, read by himself, headlined “We’re Disconnected and Lonely. David Brooks Has a Solution.”
Early on in the short piece, he says:
My nursery school teacher told my parents, apparently, David doesn’t always play with the other kids. He just observes them, which was great for my life as a journalist, but maybe not great for having strong bonds and intimate connections…
Wow. I really, really identified with that.
Not that I didn’t play with the other children at that age. I did. But there was always that sort of theme in my childhood. Part of it was moving around all the time as a Navy brat. For awhile, I would observe this bunch of kids, and soon I’d move on and observe that bunch of kids, and so forth. And as much as I would enjoy their company, I wasn’t quite… one of them. Not quite.
And yeah, these are characteristics that lend themselves to the profession of journalism. In fact, I’ve noticed that it seems a lot of military brats end up in the trade, and I’ve always thought that characteristic had something to do with it. You know, the habit of observing a community of people rather than feeling fully a part of it.
I’ve also noticed that — it seemed to me (I’ve never tried to quantify it) — it seemed like more journalists were Jewish or Catholic than you would find in the surrounding population. In other words, they were used to looking at things in ways slightly different from the way the majority would. David Brooks isn’t a military brat, but he sorta-kinda fits in both of those other categories.
This tendency to be an observer rather than a participant can be problematic. When you share with other people something you have observed — particularly something outrageous, such as, say, having heard someone else say wildly racist things — they wonder what’s wrong with you that you didn’t react at the time. What did YOU do? they demand. And they have a point. They make me wonder, too.
But I still tend to look at the person asking that rather blankly. Because when confronted with something really wild and strange, I tend to simply observe more intently. I might even think, in frustration, I can’t take notes, however much I want to, without interfering with this phenomenon. Which I wouldn’t want to do, because it would change the nature of what was happening. And not necessarily for the better. Sure, it might make the person act differently, superficially in that moment. But I always want to know what he or she is really thinking.
Way back during my reporting days, I was conscious of that on the job. A lot of reporters feel at home in a press box, or otherwise labeled and sequestered. I never did, because I was conscious of the Observer Effect, which in one thing in physics, but in journalism could be stated as, If the newsmakers are aware that a reporter is present, they will act and speak differently, and the news will change. Sometimes, that can be a salutary thing. But if you really want to know what they’re thinking and doing, it is not.
Anyway, in recent years I have rethought this mode of being, as you have seen. And so has Brooks, and that is the larger point of his little recited essay. It’s not about him. It’s about the fact that just when he started trying to change and engage better with other people, he saw that people in the surrounding, observable world were getting more distant, less engaged and even more hostile toward each other.
Which caused him to resolve:
I’m going to double down on spending as much time as I can, as effectively I can, and seeing another person, in trying to understand their point of view, and trying to make them feel seen, heard, and understood…
The ending is sort of upbeat. On his effort to be more of a full human, “maybe I’ll give myself a B minus.”
Which is better than flunking…