Friday, December 31, 2010

A "Whoosh" for David Brooks

David Brooks ends the year by telling us what he's been reading lately. C'mon, David - phoning it in on New Year's Eve?
For the past hundred years or so, we have lived in a secular age. That does not mean that people aren’t religious. It means there is no shared set of values we all absorb as preconscious assumptions. In our world, individuals have to find or create their own meaning.

This, Dreyfus and Kelly argue, has led to a pervasive sadness. Individuals are usually not capable of creating their own lives from the ground up. So modern life is marked by frequent feelings of indecision and anxiety. People often lack the foundations upon which to make the most important choices.
Given that most organized religions take for granted that life is a miserable experience, and assure you that if you keep you head down, go to church regularly, and live by the rules you'll find your reward in the afterlife, I can't say that I'm convinced by this argument. Unless it boils down to "People are happier and more fulfilled, even if they are impoverished serfs, if they believe that they will one day go to heaven." But if that's the argument, I'll stick with the "comparatively unsatisfying" present world, thank you very much.

Brooks is somewhat taken with the argument that people get "whooshed up", and that even the "spiritually unmoored" can "experience intense elevation during the magical moments that sport often affords". (Brooks believes that religious people don't like sports? Seriously - what's the distinction.)
The most real things in life, they write, well up and take us over. They call this experience “whooshing up.” We get whooshed up at a sports arena, at a political rally or even at magical moments while woodworking or walking through nature....

We should not expect these experiences to cohere into a single “meaning of life.” Transcendent experiences are plural and incompatible. We should instead cultivate a spirit of gratitude and wonder for the many excellent things the world supplies.
Brooks wants more than periodic whooshes:
I’m not sure this way of living will ever prove satisfying to most readers. Most people have a powerful sense that there is a Supreme Being over us, attached to eternal truths. Though they try, Dreyfus and Kelly don’t give us a satisfying basis upon which to distinguish the whooshing some people felt at civil rights rallies from the whooshing others felt at Nazi rallies.
Brooks has never heard the phrase, "bread and circuses"? Seriously, the reason he can't find a meaningful distiction between the "whooshing up" somebody might feel at a civil rights rally and that somebody else might experience at a Nazi or KKK rally is that... there is no meaningful distinction. Back in the original days of "bread and circuses", the crowd would get "whooshed up" by seeing Christians battle lions in the arena. Now a crowd might get "whooshed up" watching the Saints battle the Lions. (The distinction being perhaps that, these days, a lesser percentage of observers are rooting for the lions?)

For all of Brooks' commentary about human nature, he seems to give the subject remarkably little thought.

Brooks criticises the "whooshing up" theory by suggesting that "whooshes" often come from institutional activities. That, however, is peripheral to the idea that people now create their own meaning in life (of sorts) by seeking out their own set of "whooshes". Nothing in his summary of the "whooshing up" theory suggests that the autonomy comes from the ability to "whoosh up" in the privacy of your own home (sex, drugs and rock & roll?) as opposed to having the liberty to choose those activities and events that most get you "whooshed up" and to center your recreational life (and, if you choose, religious life) around those activities and events.

I have to disagree with Brooks that "Real life is more about serial whooshes than coherent meaning". If you truly can find a reliable source for whooshes, that source is likely to become a consistent part of your life. But "real life" is what comes between the whooshes.


  1. By "most organized religions" you mean "Christianity" as it's pretty much the only one that fits the description. (Islam has a reward-afterlife plan too, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't hold that life is a miserable experience.)

    And Brooks, even for him that's astoundingly dumb. "Whooshes"? Really?

  2. My synopsis did skew toward Christianity, but the concept is more general. For Islam, I think that Quran 90:4 suffices to support the point; as I understand the philosophy, you experience suffering in life by virtue of God's will and should accept it with faith that God won't impose more suffering than you can endure. For Buddhism, it's a bit simplistic to say "life is suffering" as the concept is more complicated, but its philosophy does argue that the only true path from life's suffering is through the teachings of the Buddha. Hinduism has a concept of suffering that is in some ways, perhaps not surprisingly, similar to Buddhism - life is a cycle of birth, death and rebirth, age, sickness and death, from which the only escape is liberation.


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