The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, David Brooks. New York: Random House, 2019.
Summary: A book on our life journey, from the first mountain of individual achievement and success to the second mountain of rooted commitment to relationships and service.
New York Times columnist David Brooks has been on a personal journey and this book reflects that journey five years on from his earlier Road to Character (review) in which he describes the movement from resumé virtues to the eulogy virtues that describe a life of character. In this book, Brooks develops a further dimension that his first book did not focus on, perhaps because Brooks himself was not focusing on it–that dimension of our commitments and our relationality. He continues to think about the moral life, and particularly the idea of moral ecologies, a way of being, believing and behaving shaped by our context. What he contends for in this book is a thicker moral ecology shaped by relational commitments rather than what he sees as the hyper-individualism of our contemporary culture.
This is where the two mountains comes in. The first mountain is the individual journey focused on self-realization, personal achievement and success. It operates in a moral ecology of self buffered from others, a focus on one’s own feelings, one’s own god, a privatization of meaning, a dream of freedom and a central focus on personal accomplishment.
Often it takes the experience of the value of failure, suffering, and pain to awaken us to the second mountain. Often the valley is a crisis of meaning, increasingly, it is the experience of intense loneliness. Brooks talks about the valley, and its companion, the wilderness, where we listen to our lives.
He then speaks about the second mountain, which represents the committed life. He focuses on four commitments, giving a section of several chapters to each. The four commitments he writes of are to a vocation or calling, to a marriage, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community. For each, he describes, not a moment, but a process of realization and development. He offers help in discerning a vocation, which sometimes comes down to saying “yes to every opportunity.” He gives sound principles for the growth of intimacy, including whether you really enjoy talking to one another, and can envision enjoying that for a life. I love his description of marriage as “the school you build together.”
His discussion of philosophy and faith is the section that seems most personal and occupies the most space. He describes his own spiritual journey both away from the mixed Jewish and Christian influences of his youth and his return, significantly through the influence of his research assistant, Anne. He writes of her:
“Anne answered each question as best she could. She never led me. She never intervened or tried to direct the process. She hung back. If I asked her a question, she would answer it, but she would never get out in front of me. She demonstrated faith by letting God be in charge. And this is a crucial lesson for anybody in the middle of any sort of intellectual or spiritual journey. Don’t try to lead or influence. Let them be led by that which is summoning them” (p. 239).
So where did he end up, for those who wonder? He describes himself as “a wandering Jew and a very confused Christian, but how quick is my pace, how open are my possibilities, and how vast are my hopes.” It also turns out that after several years apart, he and Anne, a Wheaton College graduate and committed Christian, married.
In his final section, he talks about commitment to community, to restoring the kind of communities where people have a sense of belonging to and being responsible to and for each other. He has critical words for programs focused on single problems rather than comprehensive approaches.
He concludes by proposing that the second mountain is the relational mountain, and offers a relationalist manifesto with enumerated points that serve to sum up the book. Everything but the kitchen sink is here, a grand sweeping vision for the second mountain life.
As I read this book, I felt both a deep resonance with much of what Brooks writes and that he was trying to do so much that I found myself wondering at times, “what kind of book is this?” I did not find that it had as coherent a structure as The Road to Character. The lengthy sections on each of the commitments, each engaging, felt like stand alone pieces, each of which could have received book length treatments. I wonder if less could have been written on each commitment and more on how the four commitments cohere, if not in every life, but in healthy societies.
That said, Brooks charts the journey into the second half of life well, of the commitments to be negotiated if one is to enjoy a rich and full, and not merely successful life. That he writes so personally and openly of his own journey into both faith and love is one of the most attractive and winsome elements of this work. The challenge he offers to the hyper-individualism of our culture is one worth considering. Will we recognize that we need one another? That may be one of the critical questions of our time.