Columnist David Brooks spoke to a young audience at Princeton last year about the “crisis of connection” in our country today. Those of us who are aging need to think about that too.
The internet was supposed to make communication more fluent and social media platforms specialize in connections. But the kind of connections people make through electronic devices are a far cry from what Brooks is talking about. What Facebook means by "friend" is light-years from what elders understand by friendship. Friendship is a connection defined by covenant, to use the old word — and those are the connections that Brooks believes are dangerously eroding today.
What do I mean by covenant? Precisely those relations that are governed not by contracts but by trust; that depend on honesty and good faith; that place people in such connections as require genuine trustworthiness because they make us vulnerable. Marriage is a good example of that, or the parent-child relationship. The relationship between doctor and patient, attorney and client, teacher and student, indeed all professional ethical relations, are covenants of trust.
The bond that develops between friends is a covenant bond. No “contract” could ever define the human meanings of our covenant relationships — or, at best, just the outsides of them.
In American public life today, Brooks said, we hardly know how to talk about truth anymore. Or the necessity for human connection and intimacy, or the way forgiveness works, or the importance of keeping promises. Those things sound kind of crazy. But when they are missing from the matters we talk about in public, the erosion in our civic connections is grave.
Those are matters that belong to human covenants and are not native to constitutions and legal contracts.
Rather than bemoan what’s wrong (seniors do too much of that), I would point out that we who are aging have at least six areas of connection in which our relations are governed by covenants, by qualities grounded in human maturity. If we focus on them, maybe we can be part of the solution to the alarming crisis of connection Brooks spoke about.
First, marriage and family. Those who are married and/or have children, grandchildren or other close family, have an intimate field for practicing trust, promise-keeping, honesty, forgiveness, and other qualities that can and must be translated to public domains. If those words do not describe your family culture, the first order of business is to transform family life. If you have learned, often through failures and upset, to practice good faith in your family, then elders can lead in treating others publicly as though they were family. As, in a broader sense, they are.
Second, friendships. Many of us who are aging realize we are not as separate as we thought we were. Friends become more important: not business associates or colleagues who can help us get ahead, not other individuals who happen to share a particular identity or membership, and certainly not electronic figments we communicate with only by some device. Flesh and blood friends, imperfect like us, who are open to relating, as the poet Rilke said, center to center.
Such a friendship is a covenant relationship; both of us grow more human within it.
Third, our faith or guiding philosophy. Do we have a “covenant” with our faith or life philosophy? I think we do! If it is not totally “private," that is — the idea that my god or my belief is just for me, yours for you, and that’s the end of it.
Authentic faith and life direction is shared, communal, critical, responsive to the insights and commitments of others we trust. That puts us in relationship to people living and dead — faith traditions have bloodlines through tumultuous history — with whom we dialog both reverentially and critically. To belong to any bloodline of faith requires a lot of trust and a lot of honest struggle.
Fourth, our community and nation. This is where Brooks locates the crisis: There is a breakdown in the covenant between citizens and larger, diverse society with its competing interests and values. The challenge is to recover a common ground that gives us a willingness to listen and try to understand and even to treat others as we want to be treated. That’s where the covenant comes in: the conviction that we are related and we treat each other with care.
Fifth, our calling. I think of Martin Luther King Jr. here. Even when his campaigns failed and many of his followers fell away, he still trusted his calling to nonviolent direct action opposing racism, war and poverty. Not everyone hears a “call” and few who do respond as faithfully as Dr. King did, but for all who grasp a purpose in their life that is the reference point for everything they do, that “call” will evoke all the qualities of covenant relationship in them.
We see that in some artists, for example, some gardeners, coaches, many who work for the environment or have a religious vocation and countless others.
Sixth, the Earth and life itself. Our covenant with the Earth is damaged almost beyond repair. We have thought ourselves separate from the Earth and other living things, and our separation has led to exploitation and disaster in terms of climate change, extinctions of species and depletion of natural resources. An understanding of covenant calls us urgently to be connected to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.
Our country needs mature elders who have learned by experience the vital qualities of covenant connections, and are empowered to bring what they’ve learned into public life.