If Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive today, would he be counseling us on how to find happiness, or would he merely be setting an example of how to produce it in others? One aspect of King’s genius was making emotion with words. He took concepts (“a dream”), made them musical with language, and then played them beautifully with voice. We may imitate his ideas but we won’t replicate his rhetoric. Or his impact. We can honor his legacy by doing work he left to be done.
What do people dream about today? Last week’s New Yorker ran a strange piece. Not framed as fiction, David Brooks’s “Social Animal” was an essay, an “Annals of Psychology” piece. In a way, it was a kinder, gentle take on what Chrysta Freeland considered in her cover piece in the new Atlantic, “The Rise of the New Global Elite.” Brooks’s “main character” is younger than the celebrities Freeland finds in her travels (of the Bono, or billionaire, variety), but he is keen for similar things. He prefers self-improvement via Mandarin at Davos than via French at debutante balls.
While we’d rather encourage re-reading “Letter From Birmingham Jail” today, parts of Dr. King’s famous letter are reflected in the little epiphanies shared by the more self-indulgent characters Brooks mocks—and yet he mocks them with care. It is not their fault. They are creatures of history. And education. And parenting?
During the question-and-answer period, though, a woman asked the neuroscientist how his studies had changed the way he lived. He paused for a second, and then starting talking about a group he had joined called the Russian-American Folk Dance Company. It was odd, given how hard and scientific he had sounded. “I guess I used to think of myself as a lone agent, who made certain choices and established certain alliances with colleagues and friends,” he said. “Now, though, I see things differently. I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.
“And though history has made us self-conscious in order to enhance our survival prospects, we still have deep impulses to erase the skull lines in our head and become immersed directly in the river. I’ve come to think that flourishing consists of putting yourself in situations in which you lose self-consciousness and become fused with other people, experiences, or tasks. It happens sometimes when you are lost in a hard challenge, or when an artist or a craftsman becomes one with the brush or the tool. It happens sometimes while you’re playing sports, or listening to music or lost in a story, or to some people when they feel enveloped by God’s love. And it happens most when we connect with other people. I’ve come to think that happiness isn’t really produced by conscious accomplishments. Happiness is a measure of how thickly the unconscious parts of our minds are intertwined with other people and with activities. Happiness is determined by how much information and affection flows through us covertly every day and year.”
This lecture changes the character’s life. This is this character’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The result is similarly appalling and yet benign:
After the lecture, Harold joined his family and they went downtown to their favorite gelato shop, where Harold had his life-altering epiphany. He’d spent years struggling to dazzle his Mandarin tutors while excelling in obscure sports, trying (not too successfully) to impress admissions officers with S.A.T. prowess and water-purification work in Zambia, sweating to wow his bosses with not overlong PowerPoints. But maybe the real action was in this deeper layer. After all, the conscious mind chooses what we buy, but the unconscious mind chooses what we like. So resolved, he boldly surveyed the gelato selections before him and confidently chose the cloudberry.
Is Brooks deploying a cool literary trick, or a prescription? Do we need neuroscientists (or Ideas Festivals) to teach us how to live, or do we need to be re-rooted in something far more fundamental? What is that fundamental thing? Dr. King might have called it faith. Here are the words that he used:
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
It is the person, not the theorist, who ties an idea to ice cream as opposed to action.