David Brooks and the Younger Generation

David Brooks, Rory Appleton remind us to celebrate generations

Fresno Bee, May 7, 2016

It’s tough to be young. In a recent column, Rory Appleton asks us to ease up on criticizing youths. He’s right. Rents are rising and job prospects are limited. Political dysfunction, terrorism and ecological disaster haunt the world that our youths will inherit. Meanwhile, we elders gripe and grumble about their music, technology, fashion and work ethic.

The older generation can’t – or won’t – understand the culture and attitudes of the young. Nor can we seem to get out of their way. Or keep our mouths shut.

Old folks have always lamented the moral failings of the young. Plato criticized Athenian youths. Seneca complained that Roman youths failed to restrain their impulses.

Each generation also regrets its own adolescent indiscretions. The 25th Psalm begs, “do not remember the sins of my youth.” Augustine rued the restless turbulence of his own unbridled youth. We project our regrets onto our children, hoping they will not make the same mistakes we have made.

Brooks_New-articleInlineI have been thinking about this while reading David Brooks’ new book, “The Road to Character.” Brooks is a New York Times columnist and PBS regular. He will speak at Fresno State on May 10. His book outlines a path to moral maturity while providing critical insight into American culture.

Brooks is nostalgic for a time when people were more interested in their souls than their résumés. He thinks that fawning parents have spoiled today’s children by incessantly telling their kids how “special” they are. He laments a narcissistic culture in which shallow self-esteem floats free of depth of character. And he dwells upon the idea that virtue must be built with great effort from the crooked timber of the human spirit.

I don’t agree with everything he suggests. But Brooks does offer perennial wisdom about a meaningful life. Work hard. Don’t crumble with adversity. Find a calling. Devote yourself to others. Be modest and disciplined. Find redemptive assistance from outside yourself. Accept the gifts of grace with gratitude and humility.

Maturity is the final step on the road to character. Brooks explains, “a mature person possesses a settled unity of purpose. The mature person has moved from fragmentation to centeredness, has achieved a state in which the restlessness is over, the confusion about the meaning and purpose of life is calmed.”

I’ve been discussing the book with students. Some feel Brooks unfairly picks on their generation. And like Rory Appleton, they generally worry that moralistic old codgers don’t understand their plight.

TO YOUTHS, I OFFER THIS APOLOGY: WE PREACH BECAUSE WE LOVE YOU.

It’s never easy to be young. Nor is it easy for old people to stop pontificating. Old folks feel that we know something about life and its meaning. But we forget that life is an adventure to be lived.

We want to save our children from regret. But young life is impetuous, audacious and experimental. Dynamic young people run and leap down the road. Sometimes they stumble. But failure is part of the process.

Young people need to make their own mistakes. Regrets and failures provide the soil for success. Maturity is a great gift. But it only grows out of the school of hard knocks.

Of course, youths won’t heed our sage advice. Hindsight only develops after the voracious eyes of youth grow dim. And wise words from graybeards don’t resonate in young ears. To age with grace is to allow the young their day in the sun.

EACH GENERATION REGRETS ITS OWN ADOLESCENT INDISCRETIONS.

The fruits of each season are unique. An unbridled elder is an embarrassment. But a prematurely sober child is tragic.

The glory of youth is carefree enthusiasm and reckless abandon. The exuberant joy of innocent adolescents is something to savor. Too soon, life’s cruel necessities require sober maturity.

Mellow moderation grows from the scars and callouses of life. Eventually life demands discipline, humility and acceptance. But there is no need to rush on the road to maturity.

To youths, I offer this apology: We preach because we love you. We know the challenges you will face in the world we created. If we could spare you tears and regrets, we would. Take our advice when you are ready. And when we finally get out of your way, I hope you make us proud.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article76068392.html#storylink=cpy

Eternal Life

Eternal life and the meaning of life

Fresno Bee, March 26, 2016

  • Easter is a good time to contemplate the possibility of eternal life
  • A good life includes resilience in the face of adversity
  • Friendship, culture and perseverance are keys to happiness

Belief in heaven remains strong. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 70 percent of Americans believe in heaven as a place where “people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded.”

Easter is a good time to contemplate the possibility of eternal life. Even if you are not a Christian, thinking about eternal life helps clarify the meaning of life in this world.

Some imagine paradise as spring break without a hangover. But sensual pleasure is not sufficient for a human being. Pure hedonism distracts us from higher goods. An eternal life of sensual pleasure would quickly become boring.

14129765799_e904af13b7_bBeyond sensual delight are the goods of ethics and culture. It is unclear how ethics would work beyond this vale of tears. But social relations and loving friendships are an important part of happiness. Of course, even the deepest romantic love may wear thin in eternity. Whom would you really want to spend eternity with?

Maybe cultural activity is the key to eternal happiness. Music, art, sports, philosophy and science are all activities done for their own sake. In these activities we create and discover meaning. Visions of eternity usually have included the goods of culture. Socrates imagined the afterlife as a place of unending philosophical conversation. Christians imagine music in heaven, with harp-strumming angels and choirs singing hymns of praise.

Perhaps heaven is a place to do activities we love. For skiers, heaven may be an eternity of untracked powder. For dancers, it might be a place of perpetual graceful motion. A golfer may dream of birdies, eagles and holes-in-one.

A MEANINGFUL LIFE RESTS UPON THE NARRATIVE ARC OF THE TOTALITY OF OUR DEEDS.

The problem is that play – like sensual delight and friendship – becomes dull when imagined in the context of eternal life. The happiness generated by human activity is connected to our need for variety and challenge. No human action is perfect. And every joyful activity must come to an end.

Conversations and songs become tedious after a while. At some point skiing, singing and dancing become boring and exhausting. And if every drive landed in the cup, golf would cease to be interesting.

A meaningful life requires more than completion and consummation in the ecstasy of bliss. In addition to play, we need practice. We also need failure, loss and the challenge of overcoming obstacles.

The enjoyment of the choral singer includes the process of learning the song, the camaraderie of the rehearsal, and the delight of the performance. Skiing, golf and dance are lifetime projects. Golfers seek out challenging courses. Skiers look for black diamonds. Dancers create new styles.

The joy of philosophy and science is not found in dull repetition of facts and theories. Rather, our inquiries are driven by questions, puzzles and paradoxes. And friendship grows through shared suffering and the process of overcoming disagreement.

EVEN IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN HEAVEN, LIVING WELL IS ITS OWN REWARD.

A meaningful life involves surmounting challenges and mastering new skills. Perseverance and tenacity are important, as are thinking and problem solving. The bliss of the moment is less important than a life of labor. We build happy lives through discipline, disappointment and diligent work.

A meaningful life rests upon the narrative arc of the totality of our deeds: the good and the bad, the painful and the redemptive. Through the whole, we become who we are. Perhaps in the afterlife, we simply reflect upon our earthly lives – our triumphs and tragedies.

The reward for living a good life may be the memory of that good life. Even if there is no afterlife, we should hope to look back on life with pride, celebrating our successes, and satisfied with how we handled failure and defeat.

There is no meaningful progress without suffering and loss. But we can turn tragedy into triumph. Every skier falls. Every dancer stumbles. And everyone we love will end up dead. Happiness is about resilience and perseverance. It’s not about how many times you fall but about how quickly you get back up.

Life without loss, risk and failure would be boring. Which is why heavenly bliss is so puzzling. Perhaps there is an afterlife. But even if you don’t believe in heaven, living well is its own reward. Joy is fleeting. Character endures. And if death comes tomorrow, you’ll want a good story to tell at the Pearly Gates.