Cultural Observation: Demoralized Language

“Public language has also become demoralized. Google ngrams measure word usage across media. Google scans the contents of books and publications going back decades. You can type in a word and see, over the years, which words have been used more frequently and which less frequently. Over the past few decades there has been a sharp rise in the usage of individualist words and phrases like “self” and “personalized,” “I come first” and “I can do it myself,” and a sharp decline in community words like “community,” “share,” “united,” and “common good.” The use of words having to do with economics and business has increased, while the language of morality and character building is in decline. Usage of words like “character,” “conscience,” and “virtue” all declined over the course of the twentieth century.26Usage of the word “bravery” has declined by 66 percent over the course of the twentieth century. “Gratitude” is down 49 percent. “Humbleness” is down 52 percent and “kindness” is down 56 percent.” -David Brooks, The Road to Character

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Deflated Pride

“But there are other proud people who have low self-esteem. They feel they haven’t lived up to their potential. They feel unworthy. They want to hide and disappear, to fade into the background and nurse their own hurts. We don’t associate them with pride, but they are still, at root, suffering from the same disease. They are still yoking happiness to accomplishment; it’s just that they are giving themselves a D– rather than an A+. They tend to be just as solipsistic, and in their own way as self-centered, only in a self-pitying and isolating way rather than in an assertive and bragging way. One key paradox of pride is that it often combines extreme self-confidence with extreme anxiety. The proud person often appears self-sufficient and egotistical but is really touchy and unstable. The proud person tries to establish self-worth by winning a great reputation, but of course this makes him utterly dependent on the gossipy and unstable crowd for his own identity. The proud person is competitive. But there are always other people who might do better. The most ruthlessly competitive person in the contest sets the standard that all else must meet or get left behind. Everybody else has to be just as monomaniacally driven to success. One can never be secure. As Dante put it, the “ardor to outshine / Burned in my bosom with a kind of rage.” -David Brooks, The Road to Character

Bloated Pride

“Pride can come in bloated form. This is the puffed-up Donald Trump style of pride. This person wants people to see visible proof of his superiority. He wants to be on the VIP list. In conversation, he boasts, he brags. He needs to see his superiority reflected in other people’s eyes. He believes that this feeling of superiority will eventually bring him peace.” -David Brooks, The Road to Character

Love is Narrowing

“All love is narrowing. It is the renunciation of other possibilities for the sake of one choice. In a 2008 wedding toast to Cass Sunstein and Samantha Power, Leon Wieseltier put it about as well as possible:

Brides and grooms are people who have discovered, by means of love, the local nature of happiness. Love is a revolution in scale, a revision of magnitudes; it is private and it is particular; its object is the specificity of this man and that woman, the distinctness of this spirit and that flesh. Love prefers deep to wide, and here to there; the grasp to the reach…. Love is, or should be, indifferent to history, immune to it—a soft and sturdy haven from it: when the day is done, and the lights are out, and there is only this other heart, this other mind, this other face, to assist in repelling one’s demons or in greeting one’s angels, it does not matter who the president is. When one consents to marry, one consents to be truly known, which is an ominous prospect; and so one bets on love to correct for the ordinariness of the impression, and to call forth the forgiveness that is invariably required by an accurate perception of oneself. Marriages are exposures. We may be heroes to our spouses but we may not be idols.”

David Brooks, The Road to Character

“And so, finally, love impels people to service. If love starts with a downward motion, burrowing into the vulnerability of self, exposing nakedness, it ends with an active upward motion. It arouses great energy and desire to serve. The person in love is buying little presents, fetching the glass from the next room, bringing a tissue when there’s flu, driving through traffic to pick the beloved up at the airport. Love is waking up night after night to breastfeed, living year after year to nurture. It is risking and sacrificing your life for your buddy’s in a battle. Love ennobles and transforms. In no other state do people so often live as we want them to live. In no other commitment are people so likely to slip beyond the logic of self-interest and unconditional commitments that manifest themselves in daily acts of care.” -David Brooks, The Road to Character

Love Softens Us

“In this way love softens. We all know people who were brittle and armored up for life before they fell in love. But in the midst of that sweet and vulnerable state of motivation their manner changed. Behind their back we tell each other that they are aglow with love. The lobster shell has been peeled away, exposing flesh. This has made them more frightened, and more open to damage, but also kinder, more capable of living life as an offering. Shakespeare, the inevitable authority on this subject, wrote, “The more I give to thee / The more I have, for both are infinite.”” -David Brooks, The Road to Character