Activation and Happiness
Wednesday, February 17, 2016
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Frederick Bruechner
I most recently read this quote in David Brooks’ compelling book, ‘The Road to Character.’ Brooks’ theoretical persons, Adam I and Adam II, move through the world motivated, in the first case, by success—material and otherwise—and in the second by the development of character. Brooks calls Adam I the man of the resume. Adam II finds motivation emanating from his higher, rather than baser self. Adam II lives the life which his eulogy would express.
Brooks describes the lives of individuals whose heroism and sacrifice are truly remarkable. He differentiates theoretically, the motivation that derives from “inside” us from the motivations that constitute our response to calls from “outside” of us.
At times this can get a bit confusing, because the conversation about inside/outside or interior/exterior often takes a decidedly opposite direction. As an example, we read that the reliance young people have on the opinions of others (outsiders) causes depression and anxiety. While we human beings inherently want to give and receive love, to belong, and to participate meaningfully in the life of family, community and the world, we have not, before this current period in our history, sought so much validation for the smallest of things from “outside” ourselves—what we ate at a restaurant, what clothing we wore, the scene we captured on camera at the ocean, the crowd in which we danced. The reliance on numbers of “followers,” or “friends,” has led to inflated senses of importance on one hand and to terrible emotional falls from social grace on the other. Comparing oneself to others—even those whom one does not know personally—has created much self-deprecation and reinforced the Adam I resume mentality. In this sense, the “outside” reference is the superficial approbation of others.
Brooks, however, means something of a different order by the world ‘outside’ the self. To him, discrete motivation from the interior represents self-absorption and selfishness, a kind of self-determination in a vacuum, whereas the outside calls to a person, and our higher selves respond to that calling. In Brooks’ view when we generate our careers, or our behavior comes from our interior world, then this expresses ego-based behavior.
In Brooks’ own words: The core question is not, “’What do I want from life?’ but, ‘What does life want from me?’ ‘What are my circumstances calling me to do?’” (page 21) Brooks argues that “In this scheme of things we don’t create our lives; we are summoned by life. The important answers are not found inside, they are found outside. This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstance in which you happened to be embedded.”(pg 21)
I think that Brooks runs into a problem trying to distinguish an interior world from an exterior world. They are inextricably intertwined as a whole. By interacting with the world in various ways, whether or not we are conscious of it, things come to us, as if from the inside, or as if from the outside.
Sometimes the dictates of our external environment are experienced as more pressing, such as being stuck in a concentration or internment camp. But we all grow up in some environment and there is weight and nuance associated with that, let alone with the random things that occur around us, whether they constitute blessed events or horrific ones. The notion of following one’s passion does not in life exist as a separate, interior wish or thrust either conceptually or in the trenches.
My “I” is inherently part of a “We.” My “I” exists within a culture, a period in history, a family, a community, etc. There is some functionality that looks independent, and that I call mine, but I swim in a sea of air—our earth’s atmosphere—as well as a sea of others—our human atmosphere. One’s passion or intelligence or skillfulness will rise to the surface of whatever the demand, whether it appears to us as more interior or as more exterior. We cannot help but exist as part of the living fabric around us. The weave of a particular self is knitted into the warp of the world.
In an extension of the interior/exterior divide Brooks the search for happiness with the more interior, ego-driven Adam I. The more exterior Adam II searches for meaning. He writes: “The central fallacy of modern life is the belief that accomplishments of the Adam I realm can produce deep satisfaction. That’s false. Adam I’s desires are infinite and always leap out ahead of whatever has just been achieved. Only Adam II can experience deep satisfaction. Adam I aims for happiness, but Adam II knows that happiness is insufficient. The ultimate joys are moral joys.” (page 15)
In my view the distinction between ‘moral joy’ and ‘happiness’ does not increase our understanding of living a good life. It seems more complete to understand people’s happiness as inclusive of what Brooks calls moral joy. When we engage in some kind of service to the world—even a tiny niche of the world—we benefit in multiple ways and hopefully we have benefited some recipient(s). It feels good and pleasurable to help, and that layers onto the goodness of helping. Brooks tends to regard happiness as the superficial cousin of moral joy. Happiness at the expense or exclusion of another tends to be short lived. At an extreme, some people, who might well feel happy surviving a war, a car accident, or a layoff, experience survivor guilt instead (“Why me and not him?”)
This gets beautifully summed up in another Frederick Bruechner quote: “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too. ”
Guest saddle: What activates you? Do you feel more aware of motivation as coming from inside yourself? Soul searching? Contemplation of personal strengths? Or do you feel “called” by what you perceive as external circumstances or the needs or concerns of others?