The Power of Being Seen
If you ever saw the old movie Fiddler on the Roof, you know how warm and emotional Jewish families can be. They are always hugging, singing, dancing, laughing, and crying together.
I come from the other kind of Jewish family.
The culture of my upbringing could be summed up by the phrase “Think Yiddish, act British.” We were reserved, stiff-upper-lip types. I’m not saying I had a bad childhood—far from it. Home was a stimulating place for me, growing up. Over our Thanksgiving dinner tables, we talked about the history of Victorian funerary monuments and the evolutionary sources of lactose intolerance (I’m not kidding). There was love in the home. We just didn’t express it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I became a bit detached. When I was four, my nursery school teacher apparently told my parents, “David doesn’t always play with the other children. A lot of the time he stands off to the side and observes them.” Whether it was nature or nurture, a certain aloofness became part of my personality. By high school I had taken up long-term residency inside my own head. I felt most alive when I was engaged in the solitary business of writing. Junior year I wanted to date a woman named Bernice. But after doing some intel gathering, I discovered she wanted to go out with another guy. I was shocked. I remember telling myself, “What is she thinking? I write way better than that guy!” It’s quite possible that I had a somewhat constrained view of how social life worked for most people.
Then, when I was eighteen, the admissions officers at Columbia, Wesleyan, and Brown decided I should go to the University of Chicago. I love my alma mater, and it has changed a lot for the better since I was there, but back then it wasn’t exactly the sort of get-in-touch-with-your-feelings place that would help thaw my emotional ice age. My favorite saying about Chicago is this one: It’s a Baptist school where atheist professors teach Jewish students Saint Thomas Aquinas. The students there still wear T-shirts that read, “Sure it works in practice, but does it work in theory?” And so into this heady world I traipsed and . . . shocker, I fit right in.
If you had met me ten years out of college, I think you would have found me a pleasant enough guy, cheerful but a tad inhibited—not somebody who was easy to get to know or who found it easy to get to know you. In truth, I was a practiced escape artist. When other people revealed some vulnerable intimacy to me, I was good at making meaningful eye contact with their shoes and then excusing myself to keep a vitally important appointment with my dry cleaner. I had a sense that this wasn’t an ideal way of being. I felt painfully awkward during those moments when someone tried to connect with me. I inwardly wanted to connect. I just didn’t know what to say.
Repressing my own feelings became my default mode for moving through the world. I suppose I was driven by the usual causes: fear of intimacy; an intuition that if I really let my feelings flow, I wouldn’t like what bubbled up; a fear of vulnerability; and a general social ineptitude. One seemingly small and stupid episode symbolizes this repressed way of living for me. I’m a big baseball fan, and though I have been to hundreds of games, I have never once caught a foul ball in the stands. One day about fifteen years ago, I was at a game in Baltimore when a hitter’s bat shattered, and the whole bat except the knob helicoptered over the dugout and landed at my feet. I reached down and grabbed it. Getting a bat at a game is a thousand times better than getting a ball! I should have been jumping up and down, waving my trophy in the air, high-fiving the people around me, becoming a temporary jumbotron celebrity. Instead, I just placed the bat at my feet and sat, still-faced, as everyone stared at me. Looking back, I want to scream at myself: “Show a little joy!” But when it came to spontaneous displays of emotion, I had the emotional capacity of a head of cabbage.
Life has a way of tenderizing you, though. Becoming a father was an emotional revolution, of course. Later, I absorbed my share of the blows that any adult suffers: broken relationships, public failures, the vulnerability that comes with getting older. The ensuing sense of my own frailty was good for me, introducing me to deeper, repressed parts of myself.
Another seemingly small event symbolizes the beginning of my ongoing journey toward becoming a full human being. As a commentator and pundit, I sometimes get asked to sit on panel discussions. Usually, they are at Washington think tanks and they have exactly as much emotional ardor as you’d expect from a discussion of fiscal policy. (As the journalist Meg Greenfield once observed, Washington isn’t filled with the wild kids who stuck the cat in the dryer; it’s filled with the kind of kids who tattled on the kids who stuck the cat in the dryer.) But on this particular day, I was invited to appear on a panel at the Public Theater in New York, the company that would later launch the musical Hamilton. I think we were supposed to talk about the role of the arts in public life. The actress Anne Hathaway was on the panel with me, along with a hilarious and highbrow clown named Bill Irwin and a few others. At this panel, D.C. think-tank rules didn’t apply. Backstage, before the panel, everybody was cheering each other on. We gathered for a big group hug. We charged out into the theater filled with camaraderie and purpose. Hathaway sang a moving song. There were tissues on the stage in case anybody started crying. The other panelists started emoting things. They talked about magical moments when they were undone, transported, or transformed by some artwork or play. Even I started emoting things! As my hero Samuel Johnson might have said, it was like watching a walrus trying to figure skate—it wasn’t good, but you were impressed that you were seeing it at all. Then, after the panel, we celebrated with another group hug. I thought, “This is fantastic! I’ve got to be around theater people more!” I vowed to alter my life.
Yes, I’m the guy who had his life changed by a panel discussion.
Okay, it was a little more gradual than that. But over the years I came to realize that living in a detached way is, in fact, a withdrawal from life, an estrangement not just from other people but from yourself. So I struck out on a journey. We writers work out our stuff in public, of course, so I wrote books on emotion, moral character, and spiritual growth. And it kind of worked. Over the years, I altered my life. I made myself more vulnerable with people and more emotionally expressive in public. I tried to become the sort of person people would confide in—talk with me about their divorces, their grief over the death of their spouse, worries about their kids. Gradually, things began to change inside. I had these novel experiences: “What are these tinglings in my chest? Oh, they’re feelings!” One day, I’m dancing at a concert: “Feelings are great!” Another day, I’m sad that my wife is away on a trip: “Feelings suck!” My life goals changed, too. When I was young, I wanted to be knowledgeable, but as I got older, I wanted to be wise. Wise people don’t just possess information; they possess a compassionate understanding of other people. They know about life.
I’m not an exceptional person, but I am a grower. I do have the ability to look at my shortcomings, then try to prod myself into becoming a more fully developed human being. I’ve made progress over these years. Wait, I can prove this to you! Twice in my life I’ve been lucky enough to have appeared on Oprah’s show Super Soul Sunday, once in 2015 and once in 2019. After we were done taping the second interview, Oprah came up to me and said, “I’ve rarely seen someone change so much. You were so blocked before.” That was a proud moment for me. I mean, she should know—she’s Oprah.
I learned something profound along the way. Being open-hearted is a prerequisite for being a full, kind, and wise human being. But it is not enough. People need social skills. We talk about the importance of “relationships,” “community,” “friendship,” “social connection,” but these words are too abstract. The real act of, say, building a friendship or creating a community involves performing a series of small, concrete social actions well: disagreeing without poisoning the relationship; revealing vulnerability at the appropriate pace; being a good listener; knowing how to end a conversation gracefully; knowing how to ask for and offer forgiveness; knowing how to let someone down without breaking their heart; knowing how to sit with someone who is suffering; knowing how to host a gathering where everyone feels embraced; knowing how to see things from another’s point of view.
Copyright © 2023 by David Brooks. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.