In his usual fashion, David Brooks thoughtfully explores the bevy of screw-ups in recent weeks by politicians. He traces their inability to deal with reality in a dignified way to the loss of “the dignity code” of yesteryear. Here’s the heart of his article:

The dignity code itself has been completely obliterated. The rules that guided Washington and generations of people after him are simply gone.

We can all list the causes of its demise. First, there is capitalism. We are all encouraged to become managers of our own brand, to do self-promoting end zone dances to broadcast our own talents. Second, there is the cult of naturalism. We are all encouraged to discard artifice and repression and to instead liberate our own feelings. Third, there is charismatic evangelism with its penchant for public confession. Fourth, there is radical egalitarianism and its hostility to aristocratic manners.

The old dignity code has not survived modern life. The costs of its demise are there for all to see. Every week there are new scandals featuring people who simply do not know how to act.

At the same time as I read this article, I saw this piece from my friend Jay Michaelson in the Forward (yes, I may be the first to put Jay and Brooks in the same post). Jay writes about the distractions our minds and hearts drag us towards, chiefly doing busywork instead of work developing our own souls, and about how they manifest themselves both in the “small stuff” of our lives and the larger issues of life on the planet:

This is true on a micro and a macro level. The micro level I’ve already described: how most of us have to drag ourselves to synagogue or yoga class or the gym or whatever works for our personal development, even though afterward we’re so grateful that we did. In fact, just this lesson — not to trust the heart and not to believe the mind — is, itself, “worth the price of admission,” so to speak. I suspect we wouldn’t have quite so much bigotry, antisemitism and cruelty if we all second-guessed our gut reactions a bit more.

It’s true on a macro level, as well. Many of us, if we are basically happy and healthy, are often fine just the way we are. Like our obliviously content ex-president, we don’t see the effects of our spiritual atrophy. We don’t know what we’re missing: how much more compassionate, loving or just we could be, and how much energy we’re needlessly dissipating on the maintenance of the ego and the fulfillment of its demands. And this ignorance has consequences.

Some consequences are social or, perhaps, political. For example, the great achievement of mainstream America has been to hide the costs of its profligacy. We love Wal-Mart because we don’t see the sweatshops. We love SUVs because we don’t see their effects on penguins and polar bears. And until recently, those of us who were well off financially could easily ignore those who were not. Yes, the Torah, and our secular values, call us to responsibility (Exodus 23:9, Deuteronomy 15:7), but my experience is that without some inner work to actually open the heart (Deuteronomy 30:6), such calls fall on deaf ears.

The message I hear resonating between both these pieces is that living well–living right–requires discipline. It requires habits. And if we don’t consciously create the habits we want to have, chances are we’ll wind up having bad habits, the consequences of which extend profoundly beyond the confines of our supposedly private little worlds. Whether you get it from the Bible or from Kant, the lesson is the same: Everything we do matters.

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