Review: The Second Mountain

the second mountain

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.

Review: The Power of Meaning


The Power of MeaningEmily Esfahani Smith. New York: Crown Publishing, 2017.

Summary: Explores the importance of meaning in one’s life, four pillars upon which meaning rests, and how we might cultivate cultures of meaning.

The question of what a life well-lived is one that philosophers and baristas, young and old alike have considered from the earliest records we have of human musings. Emily Esfahani Smith introduces us to the importance of this in describing the beauty of the Sufi community gatherings in which she grew up and the findings of positive psychologists Martin Seligman and Robert Nozick. At one time, it was at the heart of university education and considering the great ideas was to consider how people through history found meaning. No longer. And yet now as ever, people face a crisis of meaning as they try to answer the question of what they are living for.

Smith does not offer a single answer, recognizing that people have answered this in numerous ways in different religions, philosophies, or ways of living. What she does instead is draw upon contemporary research and a wide range of writers and extra-ordinary people who have grappled with questions of meaning to identify four pillars or necessary elements upon which a meaningful live is built or as she puts it, “crafted.”

  • Belonging. She writes of the close knit community of the Tangier Island watermen and the Society for Creative Anachronism as two examples of communities that foster a high sense of belonging and thus meaning for their participants. From infants to old people, isolation is deadly to health and one’s sense of well-being.
  • Purpose. We meet a young zoo-keeper and an ex-con who launched a fitness enterprise after helping first himself and other prisoners get fit. And she gives the example of the NASA janitor who told President Kennedy that it was his purpose to “help put a man on the moon.” Whoever we are, we need some big goal around which we organize our lives.
  • Storytelling. This caught me by surprise at first.  Yet we all need to be able to see the course of our lives as a coherent narrative that makes sense of the world. She tells the stories of The Moth and the Story Corp projects and how significant the telling of stories are for both storytellers and their audiences.
  • Transcendence. She describes the “Overview Effect,” the experience of astronauts having scene the planet as a whole and not being able to ever approach life the same way again. For many, transcendence comes through some form of religious experience, but whatever it is, it is this sense of being part of something vastly greater than oneself.

Her concluding two chapters are on “Growth” and “Cultures of Meaning.” She writes of how often the discovery of meaning comes through adversity, using the examples of the Dinner Party, a gathering for those who have lost loved ones who are trying to find meaning in the midst of their grief, and Dryhootch, a coffee house for veterans suffering from PTSD founded by a vet whose struggles with PTSD led to a drunk driving accident where he killed another man. In “Cultures of Meaning” Smith describes how people have found meaning in communities emphasizing each of the pillars, ranging from a church to an apparel company.

Emily Esfahani Smith’s approach, as you may be able to tell is to mix a bit of research, insights from thoughtful writers like Viktor Frankl, and real life stories. It makes for a highly readable account. She honors both those whose sources of meaning are found in religious faith, and those for whom it is not. While some who are committed to a particular way of defining meaning might find this to “relativistic,” I would contend it is a great way to discover the ways people find meaning besides one’s own way. I could see the book being used for discussions where the object is learning about how others find meaning by exploring where each of us finds belonging, what gives each of us purpose, how each of us would narrate the story of our lives, and where we have experienced transcendence.

It raises good questions, particularly for those in religious traditions, about how one might go deeper in those traditions. We may embrace certain formal beliefs and practices, yet for our faith to be something alive both for us and others, the elements of belonging, purpose, story, and transcendence are indeed essential to living out lives that matter. To whom we belong and who we love, how we translate what we believe about God or whatever Ultimate we affirm into purposeful action, how we make sense of our story as part of a larger Story, and how we cultivate an attentiveness to God or the Ultimate are the things that bring beliefs to life. Ultimately, the “four pillars” must rest on some foundation and not thin air, but a foundation alone does not make a house to live in, but only something on which to build the meaningful life. This book may help us reflect on how well we are building.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Paradoxes: Dying to Live

I’ve been thinking of late of some paradoxes of life. Paradoxes are ideas that seem apparently contradictory and yet are true. One of these is at the heart of my faith. It is the idea that to live, you must die. To try to hold onto your life is to lose it. Only if you lose it will you gain it. Jesus put it this way, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:23-25).

The problem with this paradox is that to test its truth, one has to believe in resurrections. In our modern world, when you die, you just die. Period. And so it seems to make sense to hold onto life as long as you can. The only question is, what kind of life are you holding onto? Yesterday, I reviewed Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, the story of Binx Bolling and a life of quiet, middle-class desperation. And I wonder, is this the kind of life we are holding onto–one of acquiring more things and experiences and wealth in our early years, so that we can buy retirement condos and play golf into senescence? Maybe we sprinkle in some service to humanity and philanthropy. Yet the story is just about us, about living life “my way” (in the words of the old Sinatra song), until we die and are forgotten.

I wonder if at least for some of those who come to faith as adults, it is an awakening from this desperately comfortable zombie-like existence. It is recognizing that we really need resurrection, and for that to take place, first we must really die to running our own lives, to making our selves supreme. This seems hard. But isn’t this what we do when we go under the knife for a major surgery for a life-threatening condition? We could die, but if we do not undergo the surgery, we will. This is what following Jesus means–to die to directing my own life to follow the direction of another.

I’ve been on this journey most of my life and it is still hard. Jesus speaks of taking up the cross daily. At present, one of the things this means is shifting attention in my work from some of the things I’ve really loved to some necessary but less glamorous “behind the scenes” work that I know how to do and may multiply our work in the long term. It involves a kind of dying but what I’ve also thought about as I begin to lean into this change is the promise of new life that could not be had any other way. It means living afresh into the paradox that is at the heart of the gospel.

I end with a quote I first heard years ago by Jim Eliot, a missionary martyred in South America by a tribe who eventually found faith, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Review: Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life

Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life
Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life by Anthony T. Kronman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anthony Kronman had me by the time I got to the subtitle. I wanted to know, “why, indeed, have our colleges and universities given up on the meaning of life?” It brought to mind a conversation with a religious studies faculty about the evidence from studies of spirituality in higher education of the longing of students to talk openly about these questions in their classes. The faculty person said something to this effect, “I could never do that. What we are about is the academic study of religion and not the personal beliefs of students.”

Kronman begins the book describing a philosophy seminar on Existentialism taught by his undergraduate college department chair. The seminar met in the chair’s home. The readings were demanding, the discussions about a life well lived were passionate. Birthed in those discussions was the conviction that higher education was a place “where the question of what living is for can be pursued in an organized way” (p. 6). His book is an impassioned argument for both why higher education has largely abandoned such discussions (except in late night bull sessions!) and what is to be done.

He, like others writers about the current state of the university, traces the history of colleges and universities in our country from their beginnings as church supported institutions designed to impart classical education informed by a Christian theological perspective. He sees this being supplanted in the era after the Civil War with the rise of what he calls “secular humanism”. By this he means that with the rise of Darwinism and higher critical skepticism in theological circles, the old “dogmatic” (his language) consensus was eclipsed by a pluralistic chorus of voices beginning with the Transcendentalists in this country and the Kantians and others in Europe. In place of the fixed set of courses of classical and Christian teaching came a much larger and growingly flexible core of courses introducing students to the “Great Conversation” about life’s big questions. No longer was the idea to faithfully transmit traditional belief, but rather to expose student to the multitude of voices that would allow the student to crystallize his/her beliefs. In one form or another, this secular humanism reigned in the humanities until the late 1960s. It was this Kronman experienced and this he would argue the university needs to recover today.

Two developments in the university account for the eclipse of the secular humanistic ideal of education. The first was the rise of the research ideal, first in the physical and then the social sciences. The discovery of new knowledge rigorously elaborated through experiment and publication that resulted in economically and socially useful knowledge challenged the secular humanist ideal. The second was the rise of various critical studies that might be lumped under “post-modernism” that analyzed any discourses on meaning and truth as simply exercises in power and affirmed politically correct forms of multi-culturalism. Perhaps one of the most telling critiques in this book is his exposition of how these approaches constrain honest, passionate discourse because of the fears of falling afoul by clothing a “power agenda” in the language of truth or meaning, and fears of offending some statute of political correctness. Both the research ideal and the political correctness of the classroom ruled out honest, rigorous, passionate discussions of meaning and life well lived.

The final part of the book in many ways are the most personal as Kronman honestly faces the question most of us like to deny–the fact that we will all die and that all of us need some compelling answer to what we will live for in the face of our death and even be willing to die for. He concedes, somewhat pejoratively in my view, that religious institutions, particularly “fundamentalists” are the main ones talking about these questions. He rejects these as giving up intellectual and personal freedom and calls for the world of higher education to once again take up these perennially important matters.

This is where I find myself saying “yes, but” to Kronman. In my recent blog post “Whither, or wither, the liberal arts” I related the lifelong impact of similar courses in my own life at an urban commuter university serving working class students like myself. One way or another, young adults at this stage are exploring these questions. The disciplined, intellectually rigorous exploration of these matters to clarify one’s own deepest commitments seems far more important than simply acquiring the credentials for a job that may or may not exist in ten years.

Where I dissent from Kronman is in his dismissiveness toward religious answers as an important part of this discussion. It seems he assumes that the only two choices are mindless dogmatism or intellectually rigorous secular humanism. He fails to acknowledge the tradition of religious humanism that united serious inquiry with reasonable belief. Nor does he acknowledge the long tradition of thoughtful Catholic scholarship continuing to the present day that carries on this tradition nor the resurgence of thoughtful scholarship in fields like history and philosophy that link belief in a transcendent God and rigorous and intellectually credible scholarship. The great loss here is that Kronman tars religious sources with a broad brush that makes them adversaries to the kind of enterprise he proposes, when in fact at least some of these might be allies in the recovery of “education’s end.”

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