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Featuring guest David Brooks

David Brooks | To See and Be Seen

David Brooks helps to better see and be seen by others, the first step in having better conversations about hard topics.


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David Brooks helps to better see and be seen by others, the first step in having better conversations about hard topics.

Description

Talking about any hard topic—science and faith included—requires first recognizing the person on the other end of the conversation. That’s what David Brooks set out to do and is the result of his most recent book, How to Know a Person, The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen. He draws on neuroscience in order to understand how to see and be seen by others, but ultimately this is a habit that must be formed by practice and it is one that will help us all to have better conversations and relationships. 

Theme song and credits music by Breakmaster Cylinder. Other music in this episode by Babel, courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc.

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  • Originally aired on December 07, 2023
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Transcript

Brooks:

I’ve learned in these hard conversations, my first job is to stand in their standpoint. It’s to ask them three questions in three different ways. Tell me more, tell me more. What am I missing here? And if I ask that question in three or four different ways, the first thing I’m doing is I’m understanding their point of view. And I no longer ask people, what do you believe about this? I ask, how did you come to believe this about that? If I phrase the question that way, then it’s a story. I’m asking them for a story of the values that shaped them or the experiences that shaped them or the people who shaped them.

I am David Brooks. I’m a columnist for the New York Times, a writer for the Atlantic, and the author of How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God, I’m Jim Stump. At BioLogos, we’re interested in science and faith and that interest can bring a person into hard conversations about deeply held beliefs, about when and how the world was made and about what it means to be human and what that means about how we should live and behave on this earth. Gracious dialogue is one of our core values at BioLogos, and we think it’s good to occasionally take a step back from the depths of the issues and consider how to talk about the issues. We started 2023 with an episode with Mónica Guzmán about how to have hard conversations, and now we’re ending the year with David Brooks talking about how to know and understand a person. David Brooks is a journalist, a writer for the New York Times and The Atlantic. He has a new book out called How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen.

It’s probably not going to be put on the science and religion shelf at your local bookstore, but it is directly applicable to having gracious dialogue with people. And the book is filled with insights from the social sciences and even neuroscience as Brooks has done the research about how people respond, how we can become better listeners and how these social skills can lead to better conversations. In our conversation, I try to put some of this into practice. So besides talking about his book, we attempt to know and deeply see him better. Learning about his faith background and about how writing this book has changed him. As mentioned, this is our last episode of 2023 before a holiday break. We’ll be back in mid-January. 

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

David Brooks, welcome to the podcast. We’re very glad to talk to you.

Brooks:

Oh, it’s good to be with you.

Stump:

Well, the occasion for us talking is the release of your new book, How To Know a Person, and we’ll spend a good deal of time talking about that. But like we do with all our guests, we first want to get to know you a bit as a person and I’m curious whether learning the skills of being a good listener and good asker of questions translates to answering questions in a compelling way.

Brooks:

We’ll see.

Stump:

I guess we’ll find out.

Brooks:

This will be a test of the entire integrity of my project. [laughter]

Stump:

Well, let’s go back a ways to start with. When did you first think you wanted to be a journalist when you grew up?

Brooks:

In college. I knew at age seven I wanted to become a writer. I read a book called Paddington The Bear and decided I wanted to write those things. And so I went through much of my life not sure what kind of writer I would be. First I wanted to be a novelist like John Updike or Saul Bello or somebody like that. And then I wanted to be a playwright. I wanted to be a radical left-wing playwright in the manner of Clifford Odets who was a revolutionary playwright of the ’30s. And then having had a lucrative year bartending after college, I got a job as a reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau, which is owned by the Tribune and Sun-Times and I covered murders and rapes and other horrible things, but I came home every day with a story and it just was exciting to be around the south and west side of Chicago and covering whatever went on there. And I thought, well, I enjoy the adventures of finding a story.

Stump:

I remember reading in your book here too that for a while you thought writing should be a romantic attraction, but it didn’t always turn out that way.

Brooks:

Yeah. The story I tell in the book is that in high school I wanted to date a woman named Bernice and she didn’t want to date me. She dated some other guy. And so I remember thinking, “What is she thinking? I write way better than that guy.” And so those were my values.

Stump:

So you’re in Chicago after college, but you grew up in New York in a Jewish family, and I have to confess that most of what I know about Judaism in New York comes from one of my all time favorite novels, Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. But I’m guessing the two communities portrayed there, the ultra Orthodox Hasidic community and the more liberal, but still observant, modern Orthodox Jews aren’t the only options. Tell us a little bit about the Judaism that you were born into.

Brooks:

So yeah, I did not grow up in those kind of communities. I’m always struck by how popular that book is with Christians. I guess it’s popular with Jews, but certainly, I’ve heard a lot more about it since hanging around Christian circles. I grew up in a secular Jewish home, mostly secular. I was bar mitzvahed and we went to synagogue from time to time, but I was so secular that I was sent to an Episcopal church school. Episcopal church school, Grace Church School on 10th and Broadway. If anybody knows where the Strand Bookstore is, it’s right by there. I sang in the choir. And because it was New York, our choir was about 30 or 40% Jewish and we would sing the hymns, but we would just leave out the word Jesus to square with our religion so the volume would drop down in the church as we were singing. And then I went to an Episcopal camp called Camp of the Incarnation in Connecticut. And so I grew up in a pretty classically New York Jewish intellectual household, which meant a lot of Hannah Arendt, not as much religion.

Stump:

So you now identify as Christian, and I recommend to everyone that they go and listen to the account that you gave of that at the BioLogos Conference last year when you were in conversation with Francis Collins. I’m curious hearing what you just said there, it doesn’t sound like that huge of a shift, but I’m curious about the relationship of your cultural Jewishness to your Christian faith today.

Brooks:

Yeah. Unfortunately, I say I grew up religiously bisexual, and so I had the Jewish stories running in my heads of Exodus and the Seder and a strong sense of Jewish peoplehood. But because of where I went to school and camp, I had the Jesus story also running in my head. And for the first 50 years of my life or so, it didn’t really make much difference because I didn’t believe in God anyway and so they were just good stories and good traditions to be part of. But then slowly in a pretty undramatic way, I guess my categories in my head did not explain the reality as I experienced it. That is to say I experienced a reality that was beyond the obvious atoms and molecules of our life form. And so I gradually began to sense that there are souls in people, and if there are souls in people, there’s probably a God who put the souls in the people. There is that actual spiritual element to life. That the universe is not just a neutral bunch of matter.

And so once I experienced faith, I experienced faith as a Christian. I experienced faith through the story of Jesus. That seemed most moving to me in most transcendent to me. But I have to say, I’ve never lost my sense of Jewish peoplehood. We’re speaking in the aftermath of a great tragedy on October 7th, and I have a vestigial connection to Israel that American Jews have. My son served in the Israeli defense forces. And I feel Jewish in every particular as a matter of peoplehood. And so that means it means I have to restrain sometimes my natural urge to argue with everybody. So when I got in the Christian world, there was a natural way of expressing myself, which was aggressive, and I had to tone that down. I remember once being out at a conference called The Gathering and I gave a talk that I thought was pretty good, and there was a really good talk given by a guy named Mike Gerson, a friend of mine who is Christian, but with some Jewish ancestry. So I remember thinking, wow, even at this Christian conference, all the best speakers are Jewish, all the smartest Christians are Jews. And so that’s a little cultural generalization, ethno-stereotype. But the first Christian was a Jew, so I’m allowed.

Stump:

Right. Right. You’re in good company. Well, you’ve been good friends for a while with the BioLogos founder, Francis Collins. I’m curious how the two of you met.

Brooks:

I think we originally met in just Washington circles, but I think we really got to know each other through a book club we’re a part of. And so that’s been a source of some of my best friendships over the last decade. And Francis is certainly one of the heroes to all of us in the book club. All that he’s done for America, all he’s done for science, all he’s done for each of us as a person.

Stump:

Since this is BioLogos, I do need to ask you about science a little bit. I’m curious, any of your conversations with Francis, does this get into science or what’s your own background and experience with science at all?

Brooks:

Yeah. Well once during book club, this was before COVID, we were having a conversation that somehow verged into genetics. And I found myself as extremely pompous, pundit, amending something Francis had said about genetics. And I realized this is probably not the smartest thing I’ve ever done. And somebody else in our club said, “It’s like a traffic accident. You can’t take your eyes away.” I was making a complete jerk of myself trying to correct Francis on genetics. I guess I was not a great science student in school. As a kid for a brief time in second grade, I wanted to become an astronomer but then I realized astrophysics takes math. But I have as an adult really developed a passion, especially for neuroscience, just because if you’re interested in human beings and the human mind, the cognitive sciences over the last 20 years or 30 or maybe 50 years have really had a series of revelations that I don’t think they give us any new knowledge about the human mind, but they tell us which philosophers were right and which were wrong.

And so when Descartes separated reason from emotion, we’re now pretty sure that’s wrong. And Hume, who really believed in the moral sentiments and sometimes the trustworthiness of emotions, Hume wins and Descartes loses. And so I’ve interviewed and gotten to know neuroscientists quite a lot over the years, and it’s been interesting because I wrote a book maybe 15 years ago called The Social Animal when I got to know a lot of neuroscientists and then I interviewed them again for the current book. And what had changed in the field was very striking to me. At first a lot more consciousness of the body, less that the brain is just this organ in the skull, but more on the interconnections. Second, much less interest in exactly where things are happening in the brain and much more interest in these vast neural networks that the scientists described. And then finally it seemed in the intervening 10 years, everybody had become a phenomenologist, which is to say that there’s a great deal of interest more so than I perceived at least 15 years ago in perception itself and how perception happens and how important perception is.

Stump:

I’d like to have you talk a little bit more about some of this neuroscience, particularly as it relates to the new book, which we have said is called How to Know a Person. And maybe to start off with that, you say in it that you have become obsessed with social skills. How is it that you came by such an obsession in your life?

Brooks:

As a journalist, I cover the decline of the social fabric in America. So the rise of depression, the rise of suicide, the number of people who say they have no close personal friends has gone up by fourfold in 20 years. And so there’s a whole series of statistics suggesting we’ve just grown sadder as a nation. And that’s what I cover as a journalist, that people tell me they feel invisible and unseen. And that’s Black people feeling their daily lives are not understood by whites. Rural people feeling unseen by coastal elites. Republicans and Democrats looking at each other blind and incomprehension. Lonely teenagers feeling that no one knows them at all. So I’ve been trying to diagnose why have we fallen into this social depression. And part of it has to do with social media and we can list the other things. But part of it is we just don’t treat each other well. We don’t treat each other with consideration and respect, and there’s no crueler fate than to feel invisible, that you don’t matter, that you don’t exist.

And so I wanted to know how can we get better in making each other feel seen, known, heard, and understood. And the idea was at the center of any healthy family organization or culture is the ability to know others and to make them feel known. And so I wanted to understand that and as I got into it, I realized that being open-hearted is necessary for knowing and understanding another person, but it’s not enough. You need skills. And these are social skills that can be taught just the way carpentry can be taught or surgery can be taught or any other skill. And there are things like how to be a great conversationalist, how to disagree well, how to ask for an offer of forgiveness.

And so in the book, I just walk people through the process of getting to know one. From the first time you lay eyes on a person to just hanging around before you really get to know them, to having great conversations, to asking great questions, to sitting with someone who is suffering, through sitting with someone who may revile your political opinions. And so it seems to me that if we live in a dehumanizing age, the essential humanizing experience is to look into another’s face and to acknowledge them and to really understand where they’re coming from and to understand a little their point of view. To see the world through their eyes. So the book was my attempt to teach myself these skills and I figured it would make me a slightly better person if I could master these skills. It would alter the way I show up in the world, and hopefully it’s useful for others too.

Stump:

So building on that a little bit, you say in any crowd there are both diminishers and illuminators. Who are these people and what should we know about them?

Brooks:

Yeah. A diminisher is anybody who makes you feel unseen, who stereotypes, who ignores, who’s just not curious about you. The number one reason people don’t see each other is egotism. People are too into themselves. I find I sometimes leave a party and I think to myself, “That whole time nobody asked me a question.” And I’ve come to estimate that only about 30% of the people you meet are question askers. The rest are perfectly nice people, but they just don’t ask you questions particularly. And illuminators are people on the other hand who make you feel lit up, seen and really understood. There was a novelist named E. M. Forster about a century ago, and his biographer wrote of him that to be listened to by him was to be the subject of an inverse charisma. He listened to you with such intensity, you had to be your best, sharpest and most complete self. And it would just be great if we could listen to each other with that level of intensity. And so he is an illuminator in my book.

Another one is in Bell Labs, the vaunted research facility, there were some researchers who were just more creative and were getting more patents than some of the others, and they tried to figure out why some researchers were just so much more productive. And they looked at educational background, they looked at IQ and they couldn’t find the answer. But the answer turned out to be the people who were really creative were in the habit of having breakfast or lunch with an electrical engineer named Harry Nyquist. And Nyquist would ask them questions, get inside their heads, get inside their thinking and help them reason their way through the problems they were facing at work. And so that ability of his to really get inside the head of another and help people think through their problems, that too makes him an illuminator.

Stump:

So these are skills you say that can be learned, can be taught, and it’s not just for the purpose of having more interesting conversations, but this example of Harry Nyquist is that it draws something out of us that makes us better people in a sense. Is that fair to say?

Brooks:

Yeah. Well first, if you can get two minds working on your problem, you’re probably better off. Second, there’s something about seeing someone that calls them to blossom. And so if you see potential in me, I begin to see potential in myself. If you shine the attention of your gaze upon me, I bloom. And so it’s very important just for personal for creative and generous reasons to have this ability. It’s important for practical reasons. If you’re going to marry someone, you want to know not just their surface looks, but whether their deepest interests align with your own. How the wounds of their childhood show up in their adult life. And if you want to work with someone, you have to be able to show that you recognize them.

There was a McKinsey study that asked CEOs, “Why are people quitting your firm?” And the CEO number one answer was, “Well, they quit because they can make more money somewhere else.” But then they asked the people who left the firms, “Why’d you quit?” And the number one answer was, “My manager didn’t recognize me.” And so if you work at a place where you feel unseen by your boss, you’re going to want to get out of there. And so there are all sorts of good reasons why you should want to be a lot better at understanding the people around you.

Stump:

So you give a list of characteristics or general tendencies of both illuminators and diminishers and the former logic professor in me can’t help but poke a little bit at the claim that diminishers are these people who think of others in categories and don’t recognize the limitations of essentialism. It feels like we’re doing that by saying, here’s what diminishers are and here’s what illuminators are. Is there a tension at least in saying, I want to be an illuminator, to be firmly in that category of people who don’t see categories of people?

Brooks:

Yeah. That’s totally fair. You do a dualism to help people grasp a concept, but dualisms like all stereotypes are somewhat accurate and somewhat inaccurate. And most of us, like any continuum, most of us are probably somewhere in the middle. And a lot of it depends on what time of day it is or how energetic we feel.

Stump:

Sure.

Brooks:

And so I’m traveling around the country now talking about a book called How to Know a Person. And so I feel like every encounter I have I to deeply peer into their soul and sometimes I’m just tired, so I don’t want to do it.

Stump:

Well, one of the things that ought to drive our curiosity about other people is how individually fascinating individual people are. So you say, “I’m here to tell you that each particular life is far more astounding and unpredictable than any of the generalizations scholars and social scientists make about groups of people.” Talk a little bit about that distinction, maybe even in your own work where you do have to give wide generalizations about swaths of people and what they’re like, and yet you also go around and you talk to these individually. So the generalizations have to arise out of the particular engagement you have with people, but you’re finding these particular ones more fascinating?

Brooks:

Yeah. Well, obviously when you rely on social science, and I’d say the academy in general, the data helps you discern trends in groups of people. If somebody is … Like we say, less educated voters are more likely to vote for Donald Trump than more educated voters. So that’s a generalization and happens to be true. But for example, I was at a Trump rally years ago and I ran into a woman who was a big Trump supporter and was a lesbian biker, highly educated, who’d converted to Sufi Islam after surviving a plane crash. So what stereotype does she fit into?

Stump:

Not easy.

Brooks:

And so I think most of us don’t really fit into the stereotypes. And I think we’re quite well-trained or at least should be trained in the academy to really look at data and find the statistical patterns of human populations. But it’s just not a helpful way to understand the unique person sitting in right in front of you. And for that, data doesn’t really help, story helps. And so eliciting their life story and seeing how they tell their life story and who the hero of their life story is and what’s the plot of their life story. So some of us tell our life story in the form of a rags to riches story. I started out poor and now I’ve made it. I’ve made the American dream. Some of us tell a story that’s overcoming the monster. That I suffered from this horrible thing. Maybe it’s parental abuse or alcoholism, and I overcame the monster. A lot of us, especially in America, tell redemption stories. I was cruising along in my life, I suffered, I came back better. And so these are plot lines that you want to listen to if you want to understand how a unique individual sees and narrates their own life. I just find those things are just way more interesting than the generalizations scholars make.

I have in the book a little description of a memoir or a classic memoir called Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick. And she describes her mother Bess, who when Bess’ husband and Vivian’s father died, she tried to leap into the casket and then in the cemetery she tried to leap into the grave with him. And for the rest of her life, grieving her husband became her career, her profession. It gave her a form of dignity she’d lacked beforehand. And so when you read that particular story, it’s just astoundingly interesting how this woman converted grief into a form of dignity. And it’s not something we really talk about when we talk about generalizations of people.

Stump:

Well in How To Know a Person there’s obviously a important concept there of what it is to be a person, and that seems pretty clear to us in most of our lives. But this is perhaps a bit of an excursus from your book here, but I’m curious while talking about this, you wrote a column last summer about artificial intelligence and Doug Hofstetter in which you concluded saying, “I find myself surrounded by radical uncertainty. Uncertainty not only about where humanity is going, but about what being human is.” And I’m curious if anything has changed in your estimation of people and our uniqueness given AI’s increasingly realistic modeling of human language and reason.

Brooks:

I tend to be more upbeat about AI than the median American. I think it’s the introduction of a new form of intelligence into the world, and I’m very glad to have it. I think people use it to do great good. And some of my optimism derives from the fact that I don’t think it comes anywhere close to being a human mind. I think a human mind is just much faster, more impressive than anything large language models are going to be able to do. Humans understand which the LLMs don’t do. Humans have motivational structures. Humans have the ability to connect with one another in a way that the LLMs can mimic but can’t really perform. And so when I look at what a human is, A, I see a spiritual creature, but I also see a point of view. And to me, a person is a point of view. That what we do is we take all the memories of our lives and out of it we construct a unique way of seeing the world. And that uniqueness of our own viewpoint, of our own voice is really what makes us human.

And AI can produce the median opinion on something. It can synthesize a lot of data and create something that is average, but the uniqueness of a voice like Tom Wolfe or the uniqueness of a perspective like Pope Francis … You pick anybody. I think AI is going to be a long way and maybe forever away from doing that. And so to me, one of the important things about AI is it reminds us what humans are by revealing what it can’t do, and I think that’s going to turn out to be quite a lot.

[musical interlude]

Interview Part Two

Stump:

Another thing you’ve said about persons, and you point toward this in your book, but I think we’re more explicit about it when you spoke at the BioLogos conference last year, is that human beings are created in the image of God. That’s obviously not unique to you. And it’s not even unique to you to say that at least part of what that means is that we too are creators. But here in your book, I was really interested to see you saying something that I’ve not heard others say in this regard. Applying this very traditional theological concept of what it is to be made in the image of God, to be a creator, to a very postmodern notion that we create our own realities. And that’s probably a bit too starkly put for what I think you mean, but let me give you the opportunity to explain what is it that you mean by there being these two layers of reality, one of which we create or construct.

Brooks:

Yeah. I don’t think that’s particularly controversial, but I wanted to show how when … Aldous Huxley said that experience is not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you. It’s how you take an event and turn it into meaning and importance. And so the psychologist will tell you, a lot of people survive a trauma, but whether they prosper or not after the trauma is determined by how they can process it and whether they can confront it, whether they can inhabit it, and whether they can understand it and put it in perspective of a larger story. And so we see the world radically differently one from another. That’s obvious in our politics that Republicans and Democrats increasingly look of the world and see completely different realities.

There was an experiment done decades ago now in the 1950s where there was a particularly brutal game between Princeton and Dartmouth and the two fan bases looked at the game and they thought that the other side committed twice as many penalties as their own side. And then weeks later, after passions had cooled, they showed the fan bases the game film, and they both looked at the identical game film and were vindicated in their belief that the other team committed twice as many penalties as their own team. And the researcher said, “There’s no such thing as ‘the game’ that exists out there. There’s only the game that exists for us as part of our own apparatus of perception.” And so I do think there’s an objective reality out there, but I think we only have subjective access to it. And so this view is called constructivism, that we construct our own reality. And so for example, my understanding of the visual world, for example, is that it looks like when we open our eyes, we look out into the world and the light comes in and it gets recorded on our retina or somewhere in the visual cortex and that’s how we see. Like an old-fashioned camera with film. But if we tried to see that way, we wouldn’t be able to see anything because our senses only give us a very small dataset like a black and white Polaroid picture. And out of that, our minds have to make a long 3D movie.

The way the mind really works is that it sends out predictions of what it expects to see in the circumstances, and then the eyes confirm whether predictions are correct. So seeing is not just the passive reception of reality, it’s an active process of prediction and corruption. What the neuroscientist Anil Seth calls a controlled hallucination. And so learning that science helped me really understand the radicalism of how each of us processes our own reality. And if it happens when we’re just looking at a computer or a table or a desk, imagine when it’s something abstract. When we process our understanding of parenthood, our understanding of truth or our understanding of a concept like identity. The greatest thing a person does is take all the things in the world and construct their point of view. There’s a point of view that has beauty and ugliness and contempt and anger, that has color and sound, and that’s all happening in our minds, not out there in the universe.

Stump:

I didn’t mean to imply that merely the fact that we see things differently is the controversial part. What I was really interested in is it seemed to me, and maybe I’m mistaken about this, but it seemed to me that you were comparing us as creators. Even I think you used the word as artists in constructing that reality. That subjective reality. I’m curious how much control we have over that because it sure seems to us that this is just what’s happening to us. But as you say, our brains have a very active role in producing our subjective experience. I can’t quite bring myself to completely divorcing that, and you’re not saying this either, from the first layer of reality, the objective reality that’s out there. But how much can we change? It feels like we can’t do anything about it.

Brooks:

Well, a lot of this is unconscious obviously. Matt Lieberman, who’s a neuroscientist, says that one of the great magic tricks of the brain is that it’s doing all this work, but to us it feels like nothing at all. We just think we’re just passively sitting there and we’re actually constructing these Proustian novels of an infinite complexity. And can you change the way you see the world? I think absolutely. I think every time you store a memory, you change the way you see the world. Every time you read a book or look at a painting, you change the way that you see the world. As somebody once said, an art critic, we don’t really see paintings, we see the world according to paintings. And so once you’ve seen a Van Gogh, you see the world differently. If you’ve seen Rembrandt, the Prodigal Son, Frederick Buechner says, our goal should be to see the world the way Rembrandt saw them. That not all the faces that Rembrandt saw were extraordinary, but they were extraordinary because of the way Rembrandt saw them with all the tenderness and compassion and depth that he could bring to his way of seeing.

And so if we steep ourselves in seeing the way Rembrandt saw, we’ll be able to see with more fellow feeling, with more wisdom I think, and more love. And so I do think we control … This is why we go to lectures. This is why we read books. We want to learn to see the world a little differently. See the world through somebody else’s eyes. And to me, every humanistic act is the act of trying to see the world from somebody else’s perspective. And life is better the more we do that.

Stump:

Okay. So apply this then to the overall project of the book and seeing people, understanding how to get to know a person. How does understanding this about our brains, about the distinction between the way things really are out there versus how I experience them, how does that help us have better conversations with people, particularly those who are on opposite sides from us in important issues?

Brooks:

Well, I’ll tell a story I tell in the book. I was in Waco, Texas, and I was having breakfast with a woman named LaRue Dorsey, this 93-year-old woman who’d been a teacher most of her life, and had presented herself to me as a stern disciplinarian. And I was a little intimidated by her. And into the diner walks a mutual friend of ours, a pastor named Jimmy Dorell. And Jimmy runs a church called Church Under the Bridge, which serves homeless people, or he did until recently. And he walks in, he sees us, he comes up to the table. He grabs Mrs. Dorsey by the shoulders and shakes her way harder than you should shake a 93-year-old. And then he says to her, “Mrs. Dorsey, you’re the best. You’re the best. I love you. I love you.” And suddenly, that woman who had seemed stern and like a drill sergeant under my gaze blossomed like a nine-year-old eyes shining girl. And so the power of attention we bring to the person will determine or at least influence what we see.

And the key point is not that Jimmy’s a warmer person than I probably am. The key point is that Jimmy sees every person as made in the image of God. When he looks at every person, he’s looking into the face of God. He’s looking at somebody so important that Jesus was willing to die for their sins. I say in the book, you can be a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim or atheist or agnostic, but looking at people with that level of reverence and respect is an absolute precondition for seeing them well. And so one of the things I hope as creators, we can appreciate how deep everybody we meet is. How each person has a fascinating point of view as an artist of their own experience.

And when we try to get to know them, we don’t only want to ask what happened to them, we want to focus on the subjective reality. The story they tell about what happened to them. We want to focus on how they make meaning. And so when you see somebody well, you’re not just seeing a person who went to such and such school or had this tragedy happen. You’re seeing someone who has a story to tell, has a set of values, has a set of wise or less wise conclusions to draw upon what happened. We don’t see with our eyes, we see with our whole life.

Stump:

Yeah. That’s fascinating and it brings to mind a distinction that’s often made by philosophers and epistemology classes between the truth of somebody’s beliefs and the reasonableness or the rationality of them. And most of us that have at least some form of critical realism, think that truth pertains to the way things really are out there. That gets a little messy when we’re talking about our subjective experience, to which I think truth can also be applied. But more so when I’m talking to somebody who believes very differently than I do. Whether it’s some part of the culture wars or in BioLogos science and faith issues, the reasonableness of what somebody believes is typically said to be a function of how coherent their beliefs are with other things that they believe. And somewhere there has to be a touchstone to that bedrock of truth as well. But is it easy to get caught up in only thinking about the reasonableness or the rationality of what other people are saying and not worry so much about the truth of what they’re saying when we go down this path too far?

Brooks:

Well, I think the job of seeing someone else is first just to know what they’re believing. To come up with a judgment is down the road. But just understanding their point of view is the first step and really an important step in getting to know someone. If somebody comes at me and maybe is to my right or to my left and views me with disdain because of the things I believe, often they come at me with a critique. They think my beliefs are wrong and repulsive sometimes. I’ve had like we all have, these hard conversations. Say it’s a Trump supporter who doesn’t like my disdain for Donald Trump, and they’ll come at me and blame me for being a part of the establishment, which I am, and part of the elite media, which I am. And they’ll attack me. And I’ve learned in these hard conversations, my first job is to stand in their standpoint. It’s to ask some three questions in three different ways. Tell me more, tell me more. What am I missing here?

And if I ask that question in three or four different ways, the first thing I’m doing is I’m understanding their point of view. And I no longer ask people, what do you believe about this? I ask, how did you come to believe this about that? Because if I phrase the question that way, then it’s a story. I’m asking them for a story of the values that shaped them or the experiences that shaped them or the people who shaped them. And so I’m getting inside their head and I’m really understanding them a little better. The other thing I’m doing by asking those questions is I’m showing respect. There’s a great book called Crucial Conversations about how to have these hard conversations. And the authors write that in any conversation respect is like air. When it’s present, nobody notices, but when it’s absent, it’s all anybody can think about. And so at least I can show some respect to somebody who may radically disagree with me. That doesn’t mean I’m going to agree with them or accept their point of view, but at least I’ll have seen it. If we can at least see each other and understand where we get our points of view even across difference, that would be a major step forward.

Stump:

Is part of the problem here that we so often want to persuade other people, but when that’s the primary objective, the other person ends up becoming an object and is reduced to positions rather than being a subject, being a person a point of view. And is persuasion still on the table here anywhere or is part of your project here to say we don’t need to persuade each other as much, let’s just understand each other?

Brooks:

Yeah. No. I’m in the persuasion business, so we need to persuade each other, but I don’t think people will change until they’re understood. And you have to make them feel understood before they will change. And so if you clearly are not trying to get in their point of view, if you’re suffering from what people call naive realism, the belief that everybody sees the world the way you do, then you’re never going to persuade anybody and you’re never really going to connect with anybody. There’s a line I got from the University of Chicago psychologist Nicholas Epley. He tells the story of a guy who was on one side of the river and there’s a woman on the other side of the river, and she shouts at him, “How do I get to the other side of the river?” And he says, “You are on the other side of the river.” And he can’t get inside her point of view. And we have a society like that.

Stump:

So you operate professionally primarily in the world of politics, public policy about which we know there are these very deep divides in the way people see the world. At BioLogos we have a different divide in science and faith. I wonder if in the advice for getting to know others to have what we here usually call gracious dialogue with the people with whom you disagree. Is that the same or are there salient differences when the topics become science and religion or both science and religion?

Brooks:

Yeah. No. I think it’s very much the same. And again, if somebody is an ardent atheist, it’s unlikely that you’ll persuade the person, I imagine, but it’s still to have had the conversation and to have experienced a sense of exploration with that person. To me, that’s fun but it’s also humane. It’s also the way we built a pluralistic society. And so I’ve asked conversation experts, for example, how do you have really good conversations? And one of the things they tell me was find the gem statement. So when two people are disagreeing, say my brother and I are disagreeing about our dad’s healthcare, there’s something deep down that we really agree upon, which is we both want what’s best for our dad. And so if we can come back to that agreement, that gem statement, then we’ll save a relationship amid disagreement. We’ll see what we have in common.

And so if somebody who’s religious and somebody who’s not have a conversation, there’s probably a lot of things you agree upon deep down, biblical values, the necessity to search for truth. And you can say, well, we’re looking for different ways to seek out the complete truth of creation. And that’s one way I think, to preserve a relationship amid disagreement. Another principle somebody shared with me was find the disagreement under the disagreement. So if you and I are disagreeing about astrophysics or genetics, what deep philosophical reason is causing us to disagree this way? And maybe it’s one of us has had a spiritual experience that has caused us to believe in the existence of a deity, another has not. And so if we can go down and find the disagreement under the disagreement, then we’re not fighting. We’re again, in a joint exploration to see deep down why we disagree. And that’s more fun, that’s more revealing. It’s more profound.

Stump:

The reason I ask whether there might be any difference when the topics become science is that at least some people would want to think that disagreements in science, aren’t these just about facts about the first level of reality? And how is it that our own subjective construction around something like genetics or astrophysics can put us into places where there are deep disagreements? But I take it that you would say that the science isn’t all about that first level all the time, huh?

Brooks:

I don’t think so. So take example, the thing I’ve been studying the most, which is AI recently. There are various camps of where AI is going and what it is. And people are diametrically opposed. There’s a guy named Yann LeCun who’s at Google who’s more optimistic. There’s a guy named Gary Marcus who is much more skeptical that AI will be this super great new thing and is very worried about it. There are lots of people who are doom mongers who think it’s going to be the end of creation. And as far as I can tell, whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic or how you see has less to do with the actual facts about AI and how it’s developing and more about your inner temperament. That some people are just nervous about the future reality, they’re more pessimistic. And some people are just excited about technological innovation, and it’s not about the facts, it’s about their philosophical priors and their emotional temperament.

And I’m not as expert in other fields, but I certainly do observe the fact that say in neuroscience, there are lots of different people with lots of different viewpoints, and they’re all basically looking at the same facts. And the problem first is there’s always a lot of uncertainty in any growing field, but we’re human. And so we see the facts through the prism of our experience.

And I’m a fan of a woman named Lisa Feldman Barrett, who’s a great neuroscientist, at least in my view. But she’s certainly very controversial and for many decades or many years, she was out in the wilderness of how people thought the brain worked. And now she’s much more in the mainstream, A, as events and evidence has come to rally a bit more on her side of various things. But there’s still a wide disagreement, for example, about whether there’s any such thing as universal emotions or whether emotions require concepts in the brain before they can be felt. And when I talk to Lisa, I’m struck by how bold she is in her judgments. And she could withstand being years in the wilderness because she’s very bold in her judgments and very confident in her conclusions. And people who are less bold are less likely to be out in the wilderness so long or at least be able to withstand it. So what I’m saying is even when talking about something as fact-based and evidence-based as science, and as far as I can see, the human element is never very far away.

Stump:

Well, you’ve given good, wise advice about how we should treat, relate to others, respect others. I think one of the lines was treat everybody as though they have a soul, right?

Brooks:

Yeah. There was a guy named Aziz Ansari who was a comedian who got into trouble because he had a horrible date and they might’ve been drinking and he either abused a woman or she interpreted abuse. But if you treat every person you meet, including the person on the date you’re drinking with, as if they have a soul and deserve to be treated with immense dignity and respect, you’re probably not going to find yourself getting into trouble in that way. And so that’s my basic shorthand to add act. If somebody’s making you angry, just treat them as if they have a soul.

Stump:

Well, I hear that advice through the lens of the parable of the Good Samaritan, who’s my neighbor? How should I treat my neighbor? And that story itself is a reflection on the greatest commandments, right? Love the Lord your God, love your neighbor as yourself. And I’d like in closing here to talk about that as yourself bit a little bit, because that doesn’t always get so much explicit attention. And I wonder whether you might reflect a little bit about how your attempts to be an illuminator, to genuinely care about other people and their stories, how has this affected you yourself? How has it changed you?

Brooks:

Yeah. I think working on the book for the past four years has really changed the way I show up in the world. I try to see people with the brightness that Jimmy Dorell does. I’m never going to quite achieve his level of warmth and glow, but I try to do that. I talk to people on trains more or on airplanes. There’s a social psychologist, I mentioned Nick Epley, who was commuting to work one day, and he noticed that we’re happiest when we’re talking to other people. And he looked around the commuter train and nobody was talking to each other. They were all on their screens. And so he did a little experiment where he paid people on the commuter trains to talk to strangers, and they all said this was a much better ride than I had when I was just reading my screen. Extroverts, introverts, everybody had much more fun.

We underestimate how much we’ll enjoy these conversations. We underestimate how much people want to go deep. And so I try to do that a little more. And then the main thing is I try to have more important conversations. It’s very easy to be a shallow conversationalist. To talk about sports and the weather. And believe me, I do that a lot. And if you don’t know somebody super well, talking about sports or the weather is perfectly good. It’s a way of getting to know somebody in the initial stages. But I’d love to have conversations that are just bigger. And so I was out to dinner with an 80-year-old political scientist a year or so ago, and he said, “I’m 80. I probably have one more project in me. What should I do?” And that led to an hour and a half great conversation about his interests, his life work, his contributions, but also about approaching death, about old age. It was just a great conversation because he’d put a big topic on the table. And so I’d say I try to put big topics on the table with people.

And those are things like, if the next five years is a chapter in your life, what’s the chapter about? People get to reflect upon that and you have interesting conversations. At one dinner party, I asked a question my wife thought was pretty pretentious, but it’s how do your ancestors show up in your life? And so sitting around the table was one Dutch couple, and they talked about Dutch heritage and how that shaped them. Another, a Black couple was there and they talked about the African-American experience, and I talked about the way I think 5,000 years of Jewish history shows up in the way I see the world, and that was just memorable conversation. We got to know each other a lot better. So hopefully I’m doing a little more of that and leading life on a deeper, more humane way. And in a world that’s getting increasingly dehumanized by world events, by the internet, by whatever, it just strikes me it’s a blow for basic decency in humanity to have these kinds of conversations.

Stump:

Well, let’s close with one of those questions then. If the next five years of your life is the next chapter of your own book, what’s that chapter going to be about?

Brooks:

Okay. Well, I’m going to give you two hopeful answers. The one is I like to … Well, we’d all like to grow in Christ, but I’d like to be embedded in a community. I used to be parts of a church community, and then our church blew up and the local extended family in Washington DC and the kids who were the core of our extended family … They were not biological kids, they were just 40 teenagers who could use another extended family so we formed one. They grew up and they’ve scattered around the country. And so I’m looking for community. And so I hope that’s part of it.

Then intellectually, we’re shaped by the curiosity before us. And for me, my curiosity right now is about the definition of merit. That the meritocracy, ever since its beginning, has been an argument about what really is merit. And for a while, merit was being able to fight in wars in the Middle Ages to be a knight or a Homeric hero. And then the meritocracy was what family do you come from? And then starting in the 1920s, meritocracy was very IQ based. And we now sort people by IQ and whether they’re able to please teachers between ages of 15 and 25. I think that this definition of merit has some real weaknesses and is being replaced. And so how should we define merit, both in who we admit into colleges, but who we hire and how we sort. And so I have no idea what a better definition of merit would be, but hopefully heading off on another little voyage of discovery about that.

Stump:

With another book at the end of that?

Brooks:

That’s how I make my living. Yeah.

Stump:

Well, very good. We look forward, and perhaps we can talk again once that comes out. But for now, the current book is How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen. I’ve had a read of it myself and recommend it to everybody else. Thanks David so much for talking to us, and we hope to do so again sometime.

Brooks:

Okay. Thanks so much. I really appreciate the invitation.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by The Fetzer Institute. Fetzer supports a movement of organizations who are applying spiritual solutions to society’s toughest problems. Get involved at fetzer.org. And by the John Templeton Foundation, which funds research and catalyzes conversations that inspire people with awe and wonder. And BioLogos is also supported by individual donors and listeners like you, who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the Grand River Watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find the link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum, or visit our website, biologos.org, where you’ll find articles, videos, and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening.


Featured guest

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David Brooks

David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times and a contributor to The Atlantic. He is a commentator on “The PBS Newshour,” NPR’s “All Things Considered” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” His most recent book, The Second Mountain, shows what can happen when we put commitment-making and relationships at the center of our lives. He is also the author of The Road to Character, Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, and The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. Mr. Brooks is on the faculty of Yale University and is a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

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