August 7, 2012
Two Views of Ourselves
In a recent column, David Brooks recommends a wonderfully healthy form of personality disorder. While he begins a bit humorously, Brooks works his way to a serious conclusion when he suggests that we embrace two very different views of ourselves at the same time.
Brooks is seeking to address the same question Malcolm Gladwell investigates in Outliers--are we self-made people or the product of social, cultural and biological forces? The answer, in short, is yes. But how he gets us there is instructive. You see, the answer changes decade by decade.
Those of us who have been suckled on the American dream typically begin in our twenties thinking we are the architects of our own destinies. We will confidently achieve our goals, casting aside the limitations of our history and our environment. By the time we are beyond our fifties, however, we often see how "relationships are more powerful than individuals" and how deeply we "were formed by the ancient traditions of [our] people." This latter answer lines up with Gladwell.
Yet Books does not totally dismiss the former. We should embrace both answers, he says, both ways of viewing ourselves and the world. Practically speaking, we should not consider ourselves the victims of circumstances but seek to act in ways that reach beyond the past to achieve the good, the true and the beautiful. Morally speaking, however, we must never believe we deserve credit for what we accomplish. The credit goes elsewhere.