When Life is a Struggle: The THC Book Club

(The book we are studying, in case you are joining in after the first two installments – which can be found on my blog here for the first segment, covering the introduction and the first 3 chapters, and here, for chapters 4-6,  is David Brooks’ book, The Social Animal: the Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement. The prime point of discussion begins with the wonderful writing and observations of Laura Boggess over at The High Calling. This was a birthday week for me, so I am very late in contributing to the discussion and, as a disclaimer, I must admit that I have not yet read any of the other blogs, including lovely Laura’s. That shall be remedied anon, I promise!)

 My parents, on their wedding day and many years later. 
Their story shares some slight – accent on the word slight! – similarities to that of Erica and Harold’s.*

At last, we meet Erica. The other half of this fascinating and complicated story about the forces that form us into who we are.  And I, for one, am delighted to make her acquaintance. Erica comes from a very differently storied environment than does Harold, and reading about how her life unfolds is both startling and intriguing. 
These three chapters about her are titled, “Norms,” “Self-Control,” and “Culture,” and they are rich with interesting, and sometimes controversial, information. Erica, you see, comes from what most people would call a highly dysfunctional family system, fathered by a mostly-absent Hispanic father, mothered (occasionally, between bouts with mental illness) by a Chinese-American mother. She and her mother cycle in and out of both poverty-stricken and working class neighborhoods, setting Erica up for what might seem to be a pre-determined future of struggle and failure.

But Brooks chooses to take a different route: he describes how Erica, through the intervention of a counter-cultural high school environment and the loving, though flawed, attention of both of her large, extended families, is able to succeed in ways far beyond most indicators and projected outcomes.

Most intriguing to me in the first of these three chapters were the discussions about “emergent systems” and “Gloomy Prospect” thinking and behavior, the latter often a byproduct of the former. Like our brains, our marriages, our cultures, poverty is an emergent system because the causes and contributors it are many and varied. Trying to pull one causal element out of the mix for some kind of ‘fixing’ is nearly impossible and just about always doomed to failure. 
Instead, new thinking is required; the transformation of personalities and experiences by immersion in a completely different system. That system for Erica is the Academy high school she brazenly pushes her way into. Reading about how this system worked its ‘magic’ through their diverse and wholistic approach – offering counseling, medical care, new thinking, long hours, high demand and one-on-one interaction with teachers and coaches – was truly eye-opening. As I read about how and why the founders of this particular school succeeded in changing the ethos of their students, thus dramatically improving their chances for breaking free of the inter-generational cycle of poverty in which they were trapped – I found myself reflecting on my own recent professional past. This story underscored for me the importance of presenting the whole gospel to the cultures within which we live and work. The work of the church should never be restricted to gathering conversion-notches on our belts. Instead, we need to be practicing love and living gospel truth by reaching out to people in all areas of their lives, by seeing people as whole persons.

The themes that emerged from the next two chapters also resonated with a lot of what I have been learning and practicing in my own spiritual journey over the last fifteen to twenty years. These are the ideas (and the reflections they invited) that spoke most clearly to me: 
1.) the power of anxiety to change the very structure of our brains (perhaps this is why, “Fear not!” is one of the most frequent imperatives in scripture?)
2.) the remarkable interplay between our conscious and unconscious selves 
(we are integrated creatures and God meets us in every part of who we are)
3.) the use of the imagination in helping us to learn healthy habits  (the value of dreams, imagined outcomes, hopes)
4. Self-control can be nurtured and strengthened by a whole series of small choices that center on the task at hand 
(removing the egotistic self from the center of life)
5.) the primary power of how we see things in the decision making process  
(“those with eyes to see…”)
6.) the tremendous impact of the community in which we live on the formation of our individual character 
(how much of the story of scripture is centered around this whole idea? the chosen people in the OT, the church in the NT?)
7.) the import of paying attention in developing strong character (almost all contemplative spirituality begins with this truth)
8.) the influence of practice and repetition on the development of talents/skills 
(the role of things like scripture memory and regular habits of prayer and study in the spiritual formation process)
9.) the force of positive self-interpretation in determining outcomes 
(learning to see ourselves as loved and valued – by God and others – is crucial to growing in faith)
10.) the uniquely human ability and predisposition to teach, to hand on culture, to build “scaffolds that guide future thought.” 
(the call in Deuteronomy 6 to teach our children, the entire rabbinic structure into which Jesus moved so readily and his call to us to teach what we have learned)
The least successful part of Brooks’ presentation came near the end of Chapter 9, Culture. He cites the work of Thomas Sowell who argues that cultures are not only intrinsically different, but also differently successful. For me, this argument only holds if we insist on a western view of ‘success.’ Having lived for 2 years in an African nation where none of our markers for success (upward mobility, salary, status) are valued, I had to fight the urge to feel superior to a people whose values were very different from those with which I was most familiar. The people of the southern province of Zambia value community, connection, paying attention to the intricacies of conversation, and are deeply committed to tradition. I would not choose to live there forever nor to absorb their cultural values. But I do hesitate to say that mine are better just because they’re mine. Some of this rang true to me, but a lot of it was troubling. It cuts to the heart of some of the difficulties of the modern missionary movement – where western culture was imported along with the gospel. Thankfully, that has changed a lot over the last 40 years!

By the end of her college career, after eight years of observation and learning in both high school and college,  Erica distilled everything into these three life maxims: 1.) Think in networks; (we are all embedded in multiple ones) 2.) Be the glue; (always work in an environment of high trust and do all you can to be a conduit of it.) (3.) Be an Idea-Space Integrator. (standing at the junction of two ideas can be a place for success and connection – fill any existing gaps in information and/or in trust.) 

I look forward to learning how Erica implements these maxims in her future life, both professionally and personally. Seeing how this young woman with seemingly few prospects grew into a determined, self-controlled, committed young adult was fascinating. Surely, sparks of all kinds will fly when she and Harold connect!

*The differences between the home ‘cultures’ of my parents were not nearly as dramatic as those of Harold and Erica. But…my father was raised by southerners committed to education, had two parents with middle-class jobs (accountant and school teacher, when she worked before she had children), was catered to, showcased and favored by his mother (to the extent that it made him physically sick for one entire school year), was successful academically and musically. My mother was raised by Canadians from the working class (father a binge alcoholic jack-of-all-trades {butcher/gardener} and a mother in retail sales who didn’t spend much time at home). Education was not a value in her home, although she did attend college for two years – until the money ran out. The counter-culture for my mom was the church her parents dropped her off at each week – it’s where her gifts were affirmed, her primary friendships were formed (many of them lasting 50 years or more) and where she met my dad. The two of them filled the gaps for one another and together, they worked hard to create a happy and healthy home life for me and my brothers. I’m curious to see what Erica and Harold do with their own family, if they have one.

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  1. Diana, this is extraordinary (this has become one of my favorite words…have you noticed?). I love how you tie all these themes into the Gospel. I might need a second read. And although this book is not a Christian book, I am finding I don’t have to look too deep to have faith affirmed. And this, the stuff of life that Brooks talks about, is making much more sense in terms of creation.

    I also agree that there is SO MUCH INFORMATION! It is hard to “distill” it down, as you say. I’m so glad you are though. Love your insights.