New York Times columnist visits BYU, encourages empathetic relationships

The New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks speaks to students at a forum on Tuesday, Oct. 22. (Preston Carlisle Crawley)

Political and social commentator David Brooks addressed the BYU community Tuesday, Oct. 22. He said developing empathetic relationships and being more open can inspire Americans to get to know each other and become more unified as a nation.

Brooks, a New York Times op-ed columnist, started his address by talking about the misplaced focus of many people in America, specifically qualities of meritocracy, or the idea that one’s abilities should dictate personal worth. Some facets of meritocracy Brooks declared to be lies include “career success will lead to happiness” and “self-worth is dictated by accomplishments.”

Brooks illustrated the focus on work and self through his experiences as a young journalist and student. At one point in his life, constantly being on the road prevented Brooks from experiencing normal family life, and even though he was financially successful, he recalled feeling lonely.

“Just by drifting along and paying too much attention to the world and your career, you come to desire the wrong things,” Brooks said. “You desire a reputation, you value productivity over people. I was trying to work through life, and because of this, I was detached from other people.”

He said many Americans develop a belief that individual work enhances personal worth. When it comes to political stances, religious attendance and career development, most Americans want to be “independent,” he said. Brooks said this is counterproductive to being a good citizen in a developing nation.

“Many of our society’s great problems flow from people not feeling seen,” Brooks said. “This is the core democratic trait that we need to get a little better at. We need to strive to see each other deeply, to know somebody else profoundly, to make them feel heard and understood.”

There are several ways that Brooks invited BYU students to develop the skill to “see deeply.” The first was: “Know who you are, and act on it.”

Brooks said this knowledge may involve dedicating oneself to service in a particular field and to use that knowledge to help other people. This allows people to look for more opportunities to serve others.

Emotional transparency is also important when trying to communicate with others. Brooks said everyone could learn from children how to be emotionally available for other people.

“What kids do is they throw emotional transparency at you and they demand you give it to them,” Brooks said. “This kindness makes you a much more open person.”

According to Brooks, becoming more open can inspire Americans to get to know each other and become more unified as a nation. While sometimes transparency comes from positive experiences, Brooks said it also comes from personal hardships and dark times.

Brooks shared a story about a mother who came home to find that her husband had killed himself and their children. Brooks said that, while unbearably sad, the mother took this tragic experience as a catalyst and devoted herself to helping others.

“Her life is now free openness,” Brooks said. “She has suffered unimaginably but lives with brightness and love and devotes her life to helping other women in similar positions.”

Like this woman, Brooks said students should take any struggles they have and apply themselves to better the world around them.

No matter how people begin to exercise stronger “deep seeing” skills, Americans must strive to develop stronger communicative bonds instead of keeping to themselves, he said. Doing so will build a better nation for future Americans.

“The book of Exodus is the great unifying story for our country. In the book, the creation of the tabernacle goes on for 300 verses,” Brooks said. “Why? It’s because the Israelites were a fractured people who needed to be unified into a common people. We need to be able to work on a common project.”

Brooks said Americans’ common project is to become a stronger community. This can only happen if each person is trying to make connections and develop strong relationships with others. Brooks said this isn’t easy, but it will be necessary for the future.

“The United States is trying to be something that has never been done before, and something that is phenomenally hard,” Brooks said. “We are trying to build the first mass, multicultural democracy. We should give ourselves a little grace; it’s a hard thing to do, but it only gets done if we look into each other’s eyes and help each other out.”

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