It's double-recycling season for David Brooks, with a new book out and commencement addresses to deliver (he was at Arizona State yesterday), so he can work a bit of book into an address and then cull columns out of the addresses ("The Difference Between Happiness and Joy") in full lyrical effusion:
Remember how David F. Brooks used to dance in the kitchen before his kids went to college? And how he changed diapers? Those were the days, my friends!
I don't know that much about his personal life, but "playing in the yard" is a plain reference to the frequently told story of how he came home unexpectedly early once and saw his kids playing and stayed in the car watching:
ABOUT 7:00. I PULLED OVER TO MY HOUSE IN BETHESDA AND WE HAD A DRIVEWAY THAT ONE ROW BESIDE AND I PULL IN AND I CAN SEE THE BACKYARD. MY KIDS WERE THEN 12, NINE AND FIVE HAD GOTTEN A HOLD OF THE BALL ONE OF THOSE CHEAP BROWN AND THEY WERE KICKING IT UP IN THE AIR. THEY WERE CHASING IT ACROSS THE YARD AND THEY WERE LAUGHING AND GIGGLING IN THE BALL WAS ARCHING TO THE AIR AND THE SUN WAS COMING DOWN THROUGH THE TREES WITH THE GRASS THAT WAS STRANGELY GREEN. [LAUGHTER] SO I PULLED INTO THE DRIVEWAY AND IRAN ROLLED UP AFTER DAY OF WORK AND AN UNEXPECTED BEAUTIFUL SITE THAT I JUST STARED AT THEM AND IT WAS ONE OF THOSE MOMENTS WHEN LIFE AND TIME ARE SUSPENDED AND WHEN REALITY SPILLS OUTSIDE OF ITS BOUNDS AND YOU JUST GET A SENSE OF FEELING OF OVERWHELM REGRET. WHAT DID I DO TO DESERVE THIS? AND I FEEL SUBSUMED BY IT A DUTY YOU HAVE NOT EARNED. THAT SENSE OF GETTING SUBSUMED BY BEAUTY YOU HAVE NOT EARNED CREATES A STRANGE DESIRE, A STRANGE STIRRING. EVERYDAY LIFE GIVES YOU A GLIMPSE OF A HIGHER JOY THAN YOU EVER GET AND EXPOSES SOMETHING DEEP INSIDE OF YOU AND YOU WANT TO BE WORTHY OF WHAT YOU HAVE BEEN GIVEN. SO WE ALL KNOW THE WORD, THAT UNDESERVED GIFT. YOU CAN GET IT AROUND DIFFERENT PEOPLE. I HAD IT AT THAT MOMENT LOOKING AT MY KIDS. (Talking about The Road to Character on C-SPAN Book TV, 20 April 2015, unedited from the closed captions)That was the one time he had an inkling, you see, of the existence of the joy he's talking about—that's why it's pretty much the only personal story he ever tells on himself and tells it so often—and he stayed in the car with his overwhelming regret, because he hadn't earned it. His kids were happy, in part because he wasn't there I guess, and the only way he could participate in their happiness was by staring at it like a work of art, "subsumed by beauty you have not earned" and pained by "a strange desire". I can't say enough how key this moment is in the understanding of Brooks and who he is, especially when it's improvised as on this occasion, like a heartbreaking trumpet solo.
Because at this moment he realized that he had missed his entire life. And after thinking about it over the intervening years, he's gotten to be kind of like Moses, preaching the Promised Land that God will never permit him to see because of his sin—by which I don't mean failing to change diapers and throw balls, though he obviously would be better off if he'd done those, but rejecting life on the whole. But he's unable to imagine it, except in terms of what he's read, so it's never quite convincing, like the celibate priest telling you how to do sex for maximal results.
And there's also a peculiar hierarchical effect in the way joy is apportioned to the higher order, parent or charitable donor or self-sacrificing friend, while the lower order, child or beneficiary, must make do with happiness, a kind of distinction between eulogy emotions and résumé emotions. It's a Tory view of something into which politics probably shouldn't intrude.
Toward the end, he quotes a really good writer, to high comical effect:
Sometimes when you’re out with your friends, you taste a kind of effervescent joy. Several years ago, the writer Zadie Smith was dancing at a club with her friends when a song from A Tribe Called Quest came on. At that point, she wrote, “A rail-thin man with enormous eyes reached across a sea of bodies for my hand. He kept asking me the same thing over and over: You feeling it? I was. My ridiculous heels were killing me, I was terrified I might die, yet I felt simultaneously overwhelmed with delight that ‘Can I Kick It?’ should happen to be playing at this precise moment in the history of the world, and was now morphing into ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ I took the man’s hand. The top of my head flew away. We danced and danced. We gave ourselves up to joy.”You're asking yourself, what gifts is she giving away in this scene? Whose diaper had she changed to earn it? How can the story be related in any way to the thesis he's articulating in the column, about the sacrifice of the self and the laughing children?
In fact she's not talking about anything like the same thing in the first place. He's talking about some kind of moral checking account of duties and rewards, where your joy is a payback for somebody else's happiness, she's talking about life—eating and observing interesting faces and dancing. His dichotomy is between joy and happiness, hers between joy and pleasure, and she doesn't think it's a good idea necessarily to aim at more of the former:
It might be useful to distinguish between pleasure and joy. But maybe everybody does this very easily, all the time, and only I am confused. A lot of people seem to feel that joy is only the most intense version of pleasure, arrived at by the same road—you simply have to go a little further down the track. That has not been my experience. And if you asked me if I wanted more joyful experiences in my life, I wouldn’t be at all sure I did, exactly because it proves such a difficult emotion to manage. It’s not at all obvious to me how we should make an accommodation between joy and the rest of our everyday lives.
...Until quite recently I had known joy only five times in my life, perhaps six, and each time tried to forget it soon after it happened, out of the fear that the memory of it would dement and destroy everything else. Let’s call it six. Three of those times I was in love, but only once was the love viable, or likely to bring me any pleasure in the long run. Twice I was on drugs—of quite different kinds. Once I was in water, once on a train, once sitting on a high wall, once on a high hill, once in a nightclub, and once in a hospital bed. It is hard to arrive at generalities in the face of such a small and varied collection of data.And at the moment in the nightclub she'd become detached from her friends, and I may add that it was one of the times involving a controlled substance:
... the Fabric club, near the old Smithfield meat market, on a night sometime in the year 1999 (I’m sorry I can’t be more specific) when the DJ mixed “Can I Kick It?” and then “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into the deep house track he had been seeming to play exclusively for the previous four hours. I myself was wandering out of the cavernous unisex (!) toilets wishing I could find my friend Sarah, or if not her, my friend Warren, or if not him, anyone who would take pity on a girl who had taken and was about to come up on ecstasy who had lost everyone and everything, including her handbag. I stumbled back into the fray.Brooks has no idea of any of this—and its deep, indeed ecstatic irrelevance to anything David Brooks has ever thought or attempted to think, because he hasn't read this marvelous and hilarious essay. He hasn't even read the first paragraph. He's Googled around, or the research assistant or the wife has, for a money quote from a brand-name author and got it, maybe from the blog of the literary scholar Elizabeth Freudenthal, and just pasted it on the page with a link to the URL of the source he hasn't looked at. Which is an example of why he's missed his life, because he's spent all his time on expediencies and instrumentalisms, material or spiritual, and none simply paying attention.
He's such a tool I can't feel sorry for him any more. Enough of him.
Update: The Smith citation is transferred directly from the introduction to his new book, pp. xxxv-xxxvi, where it looks as if he did read the paragraph before the one he's quoting from (but missed the Ecstasy, perhaps because it isn't capped as it would have been in the US), but in writing today's column he's forgotten what he knew then.