David Brooks is perhaps best known for writing about politics for the New York Times, but his recent book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (affiliate link), takes a look at some of the developments in neuroscience and the ways it has illuminated our understanding of how great a role the unconscious plays in human life. Brooks keeps the reader turning the pages – in what would be a heady textbook if it were written by a scientist – by sucking you into a narrative. In a subheader simply titled Camp, Brooks takes one of the main characters, Harold, to a summer camp known as Incarnation Camp, where the married but childless middle age man has a unique (for him) encounter.
In early August, the director asked if he could spare five days to help lead a canoe trip down the Connecticut River. There were fifteen teenagers; two counselors, who were college kids; and Harold. He was three decades older than anybody else on the trip, but he fit right in.
As they were paddling down the river, he’d organize trivia contests. He taught them songs, and learned about Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. At nights, they came to call him Daddyo, and in the earnest, heavy-but-open manner of teenagers, they told him about their problems– about their love lives, their parents’ divorces, their confusion about what was expected from them. Harold was so touched that they trusted him. He listened with rapt attention. The kids seemed desperate for authority figures. He supposed the teachers and other professionals knew what to say when the kids told them about their problems and fears. He sure didn’t.
The last full day of the canoe trip was arduous. They paddled all day, against a strong wind. Harold told the kids that, when they made it to their destination, they could take all the remaining supplies and have a food fight. When they made it to the final campground, the kids seized the supplies, and within minutes they began splattering them on one another. Great blobs of peanut butter were flying through the air. Everybody had jelly smeared across their shirts. Cake mix was gooped up into thick batter and rolled into sloppy warm snowballs. The kids, the counselors, and Harold hid behind trees, organized meatloaf ambushes, and warded off snow showers of powdered orange juice.
When the battle was over, they were all a mess, coated from head to shoes with gunk. They held hands and ran in a big line into the river to wash off. Then they came out, changed, and had their final campfire. Harold had brought no booze on the trip, and retired late that night to his tent sober and happy. He lay in his sleeping bag, feeling exhausted and lucky. It’s interesting how fast a mood can change. In an instant something turned in him. Suddenly, he felt like weeping.
He had never cried in his entire adult life, except occasionally in the dark at the end of a sad movie. And he didn’t actually cry this time. He felt tremors in his gut. He felt a pressure at the back of his eyes. But nothing actually came out. Instead, he had this weird sensation of imagining himself crying. He was floating above and got a glimpse of himself in a crouch heaving with sobs in his sleeping bag.
And then it passed. He thought about the life he had constructed and the life he would have constructed, if he had been a little more open and possessed a little more emotional courage. Eventually, he fell asleep.