The Second Mountain By David Brooks
February 10, 2020
For those of you who are new to my blog, "going to Paris" is a metaphor for a journey I am on. While I really am going to all the Paris' in the United States, I have a lot of questions about me, life, my mistakes, my future, why I was one of the lucky ones to survive a cardiac arrest, etc. that I am trying to find answers to along the way. If it sounds touchy-feely, it probably is. If it sounds reckless, it is probably that at times, too. I am tired of living the life I was supposed to live, I am tired of not being able to answer the question of what is my purpose. I'm tired of screwing up relationships, I am tired of knowing (and feeling) that my soul is crying out to be fulfilled. At times this blog becomes kind of personal; I don't apologize for that. I am sharing my personal journey hoping that maybe something that helps me might help others, maybe even you?
First, a shout out to Cristi Craigmile for talking up this book and reminding me that I needed to read it. Tip of the cap to Cristi. 😃
I was terribly moved by this book. For the first eight chapters, I thought that Mr. Brooks had somehow peered inside my mind, seen my struggles, thoughts and feelings and then given me the answers to many questions that I’ve been struggling with. He writes about being lost, yearning, not knowing your purpose in life, feeling as though your soul is empty. And then he gives us hope with observations about how to move beyond that emptiness into a life filled with purpose and joy.
I cry at the end of many movies. I don’t often cry while reading books – especially not books like this one. However, Mr. Brooks moved me to tears with this book. He put into words thoughts I have had that I could not articulate, and he gave me hope that the journey I am on will fill my soul, that I still have time to do those things I want to do, that I need to do. Mr. Brooks, where was this book four years ago when I could have really used it?!
Unlike many books that tend toward being based on the scientific method, Brooks is not a scientist. He writes based on what he has learned by struggling, reading and observing. While his conclusions and recommendations would not pass scrutiny from a scientific perspective, they pass my test of helpfulness.
The summary that follows is only of the first eight chapters of the book. I found those to contain the bulk of the useful knowledge for me. This is not a brief summary – I have borrowed extensively from Mr. Brooks’ own words and not tried to use 10 words when you really need to read 150 words to get the meaning.
o Brooks addresses why five years after writing The Road to Character, he wrote The Second Mountain, which on the surface addresses a similar topic.
- The first- and second-mountain nomenclature might sound a little like the résumé
virtues versus eulogy virtues nomenclature he made in his last book, The Road to Character.
- The Second Mountain overcomes the limitations of The Road to Character. “A book is written in a particular time, at a particular spot on one’s journey.”
- The five years since Brooks finished that book have been the most tumultuous years of his life. Those years—sometimes painful, sometimes joyous - advanced his education in the art and pitfalls of living. He credits them for taking him further down the road toward understanding.
- The fundamental belief underlying The Road to Character is that life is going best when we take individual agency, when we grab the wheel and steer our own ship. It assumed that character is something we build mostly on our own; we identify our core sin and then, mustering all our willpower, we make ourselves strong in our weakest places.
- Brooks no longer believes that character formation is mostly an individual task, or is achieved on a person-by-person basis. He no longer believes that character building is like going to the gym: We do our exercises and we build up our honesty, courage, integrity, and grit. Brooks now believes good character is a by-product of giving ourselves away.
- Character is a good thing to have, and there’s a lot to be learned on the road to character. But there’s a better thing to have - moral joy.
- Brooks no longer believes that the cultural and moral structures of our society are fine, and all we have to do is fix ourselves individually. He now thinks the rampant individualism of our current culture is a catastrophe. The emphasis on self - individual success, self-fulfillment, individual freedom, self-actualization - is a catastrophe. He now thinks that living a good life requires a much vaster transformation. It’s not enough to work on your own weaknesses. The whole cultural paradigm has to shift from the mindset of hyper-individualism to the relational mindset of the second mountain.
o Brooks explains what he means by the title of the book, The Second Mountain.
- Many people’s lives follow a two-mountain shape.
- The first mountain refers to the stage in life when we focus on individualistic and egotistical pursuits such as career and money. The second mountain is the stage most of us reach later in life. [Although you can reach the second mountain earlier in life, too.] On the second mountain we begin to focus more on matters of the heart and soul, e.g. building communities, relationships, and finding our true calling.
- The progression: we got out of school, began our career or started a family, and identified the mountain we thought we were meant to climb: I’m going to be a cop, a doctor, an entrepreneur. Our decision on what we thought we were meant to do was likely the result of external factors (“my family thinks I should be a _____.”)
- On the first mountain, we all have to perform certain life tasks: establish an identity, separate from our parents, cultivate our talents, build a secure ego, and try to make a mark in the world.
- While climbing that first mountain, we spend a lot of time thinking about reputation management. We are always keeping score. How do I measure up? Where do I rank? We think “I am what the world says I am.”
- The goals on the first mountain are the goals that our culture endorses - to be a professional success, to be well thought of, to get invited into the right social circles, and to experience personal happiness. It’s all the normal stuff: nice home, nice family, nice vacations, good food, good friends, etc.
o Then something happens:
- Some of us (many of us? most of us?) get to the top of that first mountain, taste success, and find it … unsatisfying. “Is this all there is?” we wonder. We sense there must be a deeper journey they can take.
- Other of us get knocked off that mountain by some failure. Something happens to our career, our family, our reputation. Suddenly life doesn’t look like a steady ascent up the mountain of success; it has a different and more disappointing shape.
- For still others of us, something unexpected happens that knocks us crossways: the death of a child, a cancer scare, a struggle with addiction, some life-altering tragedy that was not part of our original plan.
o Whatever the cause, we are no longer on the first mountain. We are down in the valley of bewilderment or suffering. This can happen at any age.
- These seasons of suffering have a way of exposing the deepest parts of ourselves and reminding us that we’re not the people we thought we were. People in the valley have been broken open. They have been reminded that they are not just the parts of themselves that they put on display. There is another layer to them they have been neglecting, a substrate where the dark wounds, and most powerful yearnings live.
- Some shrivel [what an excellent verb!] in the face of this kind of suffering. They seem to get more afraid and more resentful. They shrink away from their inner depths in fear. Their lives become smaller and lonelier. We all know old people who nurse eternal grievances. They don’t get the respect they deserve. They live their lives as an endless tantrum about some wrong done to them long ago. [I think it is fair to say we also know younger people who feel the same way – age is not a factor in whether you nurse grievances.]
- But for others, this valley is the making of them. The season of suffering interrupts the superficial flow of everyday life. They see deeper into themselves and realize that down in the substrate, flowing from all the tender places, there is a fundamental ability to care, a yearning to transcend the self and care for others.
- And when they have encountered this yearning, they are ready to become a whole person. They see familiar things with new eyes. They are finally able to love their neighbor as themselves, not as a slogan but a practical reality. Their life is defined by how they react to their moment of greatest adversity.
o The people who are made larger by suffering go on to stage two small rebellions.
- First, they rebel against their ego ideal. When they were on their first mountain, their ego had some vision of what it was shooting for—some vision of prominence, pleasure, and success. Down in the valley they lose interest in their ego ideal. They still feel and sometimes succumb to their selfish desires. But, overall, they realize the desires of the ego are never going to satisfy the deep regions they have discovered in themselves. They realize that they are much better than their ego ideal.
- Second, they rebel against the mainstream culture. All their lives they’ve been taking economics classes or living in a culture that teaches that human beings pursue self- interest—money, power, fame. But now they are not interested in what other people tell them to want.
- They want to want the things that are truly worth wanting. They elevate their desires.
- The world tells them to be a good consumer [“everyday should feel this good”], but they want to be the one consumed—by a moral cause.
- The world tells them to want independence, but they want interdependence—to be enmeshed in a web of warm relationships.
- The world tells them to want individual freedom, but they want intimacy, responsibility, and commitment
- The world wants them to climb the ladder and pursue professional and material success, but they want to be a person for others.
- The magazines on the magazine rack want them to ask “What can I do to make myself happy?” but they glimpse something bigger than personal happiness.
o People who have been made larger by suffering are brave enough to let parts of their old self die. Down in the valley, their motivations changed. They’ve gone from self-centered to other-centered.
- That’s the crucial way to tell whether you are on your first or second mountain. Where is your ultimate appeal? To self, or to something outside of self?
o If the first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self, the second mountain is about shedding the ego and losing the self. If the first mountain is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contribution. If the first mountain is elitist - moving up - the second mountain is egalitarian - planting yourself amid those who need, and walking arm in arm with them.
o You don’t climb the second mountain the way you climb the first mountain.
- You conquer your first mountain. You identify the summit, and you claw your way toward it. On the first mountain you tend to be ambitious, strategic, and independent.
- You are conquered by your second mountain. You surrender to some summons, and you do everything necessary to answer the call and address the problem or injustice that is in front of you. On the second mountain you tend to be relational, intimate, and relentless.
o Our society has become a conspiracy against joy. It has put too much emphasis on the individuating part of our consciousness - individual reason - and too little emphasis on the bonding parts of our consciousness, the heart and soul. We’ve seen a shocking rise of depression, anxiety, suicide, and distrust. We have become too cognitive when we should be more emotional; too utilitarian when we should be using a moral lens; too individualistic when we should be more communal.
o Our public conversation is muddled about the definition of a good life. Often, we say a good life is a happy life. We live, as it says in our founding document, in pursuit of happiness. In all forms of happiness we feel good, elated, uplifted. But the word “happiness” can mean a lot of different things. It’s important to make a distinction between happiness and joy. What’s the difference?
- Happiness involves a victory for the self, an expansion of self. Happiness comes as we move toward our goals, when things go our way. You get a big promotion. You graduate from college. Your team wins the Super Bowl. You have a delicious meal. Happiness often has to do with some success, some new ability, or some heightened sensual pleasure.
- Joy tends to involve some transcendence of self. It’s when the skin barrier between you and some other person or entity fades away and you feel fused together. Joy is present when mother and baby are gazing adoringly into each other’s eyes, when a hiker is overwhelmed by beauty in the woods and feels at one with nature, when a gaggle of friends are dancing deliriously in unison. Joy often involves self-forgetting.
- Happiness is what we aim for on the first mountain. Joy is a by-product of living on the second mountain. We can help create happiness, but we are seized by joy. We are pleased by happiness, but we are transformed by joy. When we experience joy we often feel we have glimpsed into a deeper and truer layer of reality. A narcissist can be happy, but a narcissist can never be joyful, because the surrender of self is the precise thing a narcissist can’t do. A narcissist can’t even conceive of joy. That’s one of the problems with being stuck on the first mountain: You can’t even see what the second mountain offers.
- Happiness is good, but joy is better. Just as the second mountain is a fuller and richer phase of life after the first mountain, joy is a fuller and richer state beyond happiness. While happiness tends to be fickle and fleeting, joy can be fundamental and enduring. The more you are living a committed life well, the more joy will be your steady state, the frame of mind you carry around with you and shine on others. You will become a joyful person.
- Joy is our north star, our navigating point. If we steer toward joy, we will wind up at the right spot.
o Happiness is the proper goal for people on their first mountain. And happiness is great. But we only get one life, so we might as well use it hunting for big game - to enjoy happiness, but to surpass happiness toward joy.
- Happiness tends to be individual; we measure it by asking, “Are you happy?” Joy tends to be self-transcending.
- Happiness is something you pursue [actually the current thinking is that you should not pursue happiness]; joy is something that rises up unexpectedly and sweeps over you.
- Happiness comes from accomplishments; joy comes from offering gifts.
- Happiness fades; we get used to the things that used to make us happy. Joy doesn’t fade. To live with joy is to live with wonder, gratitude, and hope.
o There are several levels of joy, with moral joy being the highest level.
- Moral joy has an extra feature. It can become permanent. Some people live joyfully day by day. Their daily actions are aligned with their ultimate commitments. They have given themselves away, united and wholeheartedly. They are so grateful to have found their place and taken their stand. They have the inner light.
o Powerful moments of moral elevation seem to push a mental reset button, wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and moral inspiration. These moments of elevation are energizing. People feel strongly motivated to do something good themselves, to act, to dare, to sacrifice, to help others. When people make generosity part of their daily routine, they refashion who they are. The interesting thing about your personality, your essence, is that it is not more or less permanent like your leg bone. Your essence is changeable, like your mind. Every action you take, every thought you have, changes you, even if just a little, making you a little more elevated or a little more degraded. If you do a series of good deeds, the habit of other - centeredness becomes gradually engraved into your life. It becomes easier to do good deeds down the line. If you lie or behave callously or cruelly toward someone, your personality degrades, and it is easier for you to do something even worse later on.
- The people who radiate a permanent joy have given themselves over to lives of deep and loving commitment. Giving has become their nature, and little by little they have made their souls incandescent.
- There’s always something flowing out of our spirit. For some people it’s mostly fear or insecurity. For the people we call joyful, it is mostly gratitude, delight, and kindness.
o How do you build your personality to glow in this way? You might think a bright personality would come from an unburdened life—a life of pleasures and constant delights. But if you closely look at joyful people, you notice that very often the people who have the most incandescent souls have taken on the heaviest burdens.
- A life of ease is not the pathway to growth and joy.
- You have to lose yourself to find yourself, give yourself away to get everything back.
o People who are on the second mountain have been transformed. They are deeply committed. The outpouring of love has become a steady force.
Chapter 1 - Moral Ecologies
o Brooks opens the book by explaining how moral ecologies have defined and continue to define society and individuals. A moral ecology is a set of beliefs and values that guides an individual or a society. They guide dressing, speech, and culture. Moral ecologies tend to have virtues as well as failings.
o Brooks claims that over time, the moral ecology of a society shifts in a particular pattern. The first phase is the ‘ratchet” phase where society uses a moral ecology to solve its problems. Then comes the “hatchet” phase where a counterculture rises up and does away with the old ecology because it cannot solve new problems. As the battle between old and new rages, society ultimately chooses to adopt a new moral ecology. And the cycle repeats itself.
o The hyper-individualism moral ecology is based on five core ideas. The culture of hyper- individualism that has become so dominant in our society today is built on:
- The autonomous self – People want to have as much freedom as possible with little control from general society.
- God within – People believe that the definitive source of authority should be the voice within.
- Privatization of meaning – Everyone wants to create their personal value and morality
- Total freedom – Individuals want to be free from institutional influence, e.g. family, religion, and culture.
- Accomplishments – Individuals are measured according to status and wealth rather than a moral code.
Chapter 2 - The Instagram Life
o In a world plagued by uncertainty, youth of today are searching for meaning, direction, wisdom, and a life task to devote themselves to. However, all they get from adults are empty promises of freedom, possibility, and autonomy. These empty promises leave them stuck in limbo.
o Many young people have fallen into an aesthetic lifestyle that leads nowhere.
- Once kids graduate from college, they begin to seek a life of adventure and experiences. Young people are told that this is a good way to create an identity and take risks. As a result, many young people drift from job to job, house to house, and adventure to adventure.
- Every experience is shared on social media to show others how cool their life is. But the problem with this is that it is an aesthetic lifestyle that doesn’t lead to fulfillment.
- By the time your thirties come around, all you have are temporary experiences and an obsession with self. Though the Internet provides great freedom, it has created a generation that is unfocused, uncommitted, and lost in cheap entertainment.
- Brooks believes that the person who graduates and seeks such a lifestyle ultimately burns and crashes, realizing that freedom without direction or commitment sucks.
Chapter 3 – The Insecure Overachiever
o Overachievers appear pragmatic but are actually driven by anxiety.
- Unlike those who only care about an aesthetic lifestyle, some young people are such overachievers that they treat their adult life as a competition.
- These overachievers are used to doing well academically, and their dream is to get hired by prestigious firms. Though these young adults are pragmatists and good problem solvers, they are also suppressing a sense of anxiety about their future. As a result, they take jobs that they don’t love and end up as unfulfilled people - they are “pleasers.”
- Meritocracy has become the preeminent moral system. Moral values are supposed to help you figure out who you are and what you want in life. However, the world is using meritocracy as a replacement for the moral system.
- Moral concepts have now been professionalized. Instead of “character” referring to moral qualities of service, love, and care, it is now used to refer to organizational traits such as discipline, grit, and productivity.
- Community now refers to a group of competing employees. Meritocracy creates the impression that those who are smarter and talented are worth more than everybody else.
- This explains why many people who attach their worth to job titles and status end up feeling like they have lost their souls.
- Acedia (“quieting of passion or a sense of under-living your life”)is much more common today than ever.
- After years of chasing professional opportunities and sacrificing marriage and children, many individuals end up fantasizing about living a life of purpose and passion. A person may have a job and family but because they are an insecure overachiever, they sacrifice joy for status and wealth.
Chapter 4 – The Valley
o There are people who go through life without ever stumbling into the valley, and more power to them.
o However, most of us have had to endure some season of suffering, some season when we had to ask ourselves the fundamental questions.
o Suffering comes in many forms.
- Some people are busy at work but realize they’ve lost the thread of their lives.
- Some people suffer a heartbreak.
- Some people lose a loved one, which makes them feel as if some bright future is forever lost.
- Others get knocked sideways by a heart attack, cancer, or stroke.
- Others experience failure or scandal; they’ve built their identity on some external performance, and that is now gone.
- For some people this feeling is not a dramatic crisis. It’s just a creeping malaise, a gradual loss of enthusiasm in what they are doing.
- “I always sought to win whatever the game was, and only now do I realize how much I have been played by the game.”
- A person may fight ferociously to win professional success, to be better than everybody else, and then one day find it all seems empty and meaningless.
- “Unable to value, unable to enjoy.”
o People generally go through a familiar process before they can acknowledge how comprehensive their problem is.
- First, they deny that there’s something wrong with their life. Then they intensify their efforts to follow the old failing plan.
- Then they try to treat themselves with some new thrill: They have an affair, drink more, or start doing drugs. Only when all this fails do they admit that they need to change the way they think about life.
- This is a “telos crisis.” A telos crisis is defined by the fact that people in it don’t know what their purpose is. When this happens, they become fragile.
o Nietzsche says that he who has a “why” to live for can endure any “how.”
o If you know what your purpose is, you can handle the setbacks. But when you don’t know what your purpose is, any setback can lead to total collapse. As Seamus Heaney put it, “You are neither here nor there, / A hurry through which known and strange things pass.”
o A telos crisis comes in two forms, walking and sleeping.
- In the walking form, the sufferer just keeps trudging along. She has been hit by some blow, or suffers from some deep ennui, but she doesn’t know what she wants or how she should change her life, so she just keeps on doing what she was doing—same job, same place, and same life. She is living with the psychological awareness that she is settling.
- The second kind of telos crisis is the sleeping kind. In this version, the sufferer is just laid low, crawls into bed, and watches Netflix. His confidence is shot. He is paralyzed by self- focus. He has this weird and unwarranted conviction that it’s too late for him; life has passed him by. Other people’s accomplishments begin to bring real pain, as the distance between their (apparent) swift ascent and his pathetic stasis begins to seem hopelessly wide.
o Eventually there’s no escaping the big questions.
- What’s my best life?
- What do I believe in?
- Where do I belong?
- [Eventually they figure out it is time to go visit a bunch of Paris’ to find answers to those questions that are bothering them so. 🧐]
o Times of suffering kick us in the ass. They are the foghorns that blast us out of our complacency and warn us we are heading for the wrong life.
- There’s nothing intrinsically noble about suffering. Sometimes grief is just grief, to be gotten through
- Many bad things happen in life, and it’s a mistake to try to sentimentalize these moments away by saying that they must be happening to serve some higher good.
- Sometimes, when suffering can be connected to a larger narrative of change and redemption, we can suffer our way to wisdom. This is the kind of wisdom you can’t learn from books; you have to experience it yourself.
- Sometimes you experience your first taste of nobility in the way you respond to suffering.
- Suffering upsets the normal patterns of life and reminds you that you are not who you thought you were.
- It smashes through the floor of what you thought was the basement of your soul and reveals a cavity below, and then it smashes through that floor and reveals a cavity below that.
o Suffering teaches us gratitude.
- Normally we take love and friendship for granted. But in seasons of suffering we throw ourselves on others and appreciate the gifts that our loved ones offer.
- Suffering puts us in solidarity with others who suffer. It makes us more sympathetic to those who share this or some other sort of pain. In this way it tenderizes the heart.
- Suffering calls for a response. None of us can avoid suffering, but we can all choose how we respond to it.
- And, interestingly, few people respond to suffering by seeking pleasure. Nobody says, I lost my child, therefore I should go out and party. They say, I lost my child, and therefore I am equipped to help others who have lost their child.
- We realize that shallow food won’t satisfy the deep hunger and fill the deep emptiness that suffering reveals. Only spiritual food will do that.
- Many people respond to pain by practicing generosity.
- Suffering shatters the illusion of self-sufficiency, which is an illusion that has to be shattered if any interdependent life is going to begin.
- Seasons of pain expose the falseness and vanity of most of our ambitions and illuminate the larger reality of living and dying, caring and being cared for. Pain helps us see the true size of our egotistical desires.
Chapter 5 – The Wilderness
o The normal reaction to a time of suffering is to try to get out of it. Address the symptoms. Have a few drinks. Play a few sad records. Move on.
o The right thing to do when you are in a time of suffering is to stand erect in the suffering. Wait. See what it has to teach you. Understand that your suffering is a task that, if handled correctly, with the help of others, will lead to enlargement, not diminishment.
o The valley is where we shed the old self so the new self can emerge.
- There are no shortcuts. There’s just the same eternal three-step process that the poets have described from time eternal: from suffering to wisdom to service.
- Dying to the old self, cleansing in the emptiness, resurrecting in the new. From the agony of the valley, to the purgation in the desert, to the insight on the mountaintop.
o At the moment when you are most confused about what you should do with your life, the smartest bet is to do what millions of men and women have done through history. Pick yourself up and go out alone into the wilderness.
o In the wilderness, life is stripped of distractions. It is quiet. The topography demands discipline, simplicity, and fierce attention.
- Solitude in the wilderness makes irrelevant all the people-pleasing habits that have become interwoven into your personality.
- What happens when a ‘gifted child’ finds himself in a wilderness where he’s stripped of any way of proving his worth? What does he do when there’s nothing he can do, when there’s no audience to applaud his performance, when he faces a cold, silent indifference, if not hostility? His world falls to pieces. The soul hungry for approval starves in a desert like that. It reduces the compulsive achiever to something little, utterly ordinary. Only then is he able to be loved.
- Solitude in the wilderness changes your experience of time. Normal life happens in ordinary time - the commute to work / do the dishes sense of time.
- The wilderness marks time in eons; nothing changes quickly. The wilderness lives at the pace of what the Greeks called kairos time, which can be slower but is always richer. Synchronous time is moment after moment, but kairos time is qualitative, opportune or not yet ripe, rich or spare, inspired or flat - the crowded hour or the empty moment.
- When you have been away in the wilderness for weeks, you begin to move at kairos time. The soul communing with itself in the wilderness is at kairos time, too - slow and serene, but thick and strong, like the growing of the redwood.
- The leanness of wilderness life prepares you for intimacy with yourself. Sometimes that surfaces the pain. There are the red-hot memories of past failures and past grief. There are all the wounds inflicted by parents and grandparents. There are your own bad actions that flow from these wounds—your tendency to lash out, or your tendency to be hyper-afraid of abandonment, or your tendency to be incommunicative and to withdraw at the first sign of stress. “Your pain is deep and it won’t just go away,” Nouwen continues. “It is also uniquely yours, because it is linked to some of your earliest life experiences. Your call is to bring that pain home. As long as your wounded part remains foreign to your adult self, your pain will injure you as well as others.” As the saying goes, suffering that is not transformed is transmitted.
o When people are out in the wilderness, they learn to receive and review their life. “If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life,” Frederick Buechner wrote.
o Trying to live someone else’s life, or to live by an abstract norm, will invariably fail—and even do great damage.
o You don’t find your vocation through an act of taking charge. Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. We must listen to our life and try to understand what it is truly about - quite apart from what we would like it to be about.
o Real listening, whether to others or yourself, involves that unexpected extra round of questions, stretching the asking beyond what feels natural.
o Listening to our life means having patience.
o Listening to life means asking:
- What have I done well?
- What have I done poorly?
- What do I do when I’m not being paid or rewarded?
- Were there times when I put on faces that other people wanted me to wear, or that I thought other people wanted me to wear?
o When we’re in the wilderness, a better version of ourself has a tendency to emerge.
- “When I venture into wilderness, I’m surprised by how much I enjoy my own company,” Belden Lane writes. “The person I travel with there isn’t worried about his performance. He sheds the polished persona he tries so often to project to others. Scribbling in my journal, I’m happy as a lark. I want to be the person that I am when I’m alone in wilderness.”
- This is the beginning of an important revelation. “In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us,” Annie Dillard writes “But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other.”
o This is the pivotal point, maybe of this whole book. On the surface of our lives most of us build the hard shell. It is built to cover fear and insecurity and win approval and professional success. When we get down to the core of ourselves, we find a different, more primeval (raw and elementary) country, and in it a deep yearning to care and connect. We could call this deep core of ourselves the pleroma, or substrate. It is where our heart and soul reside.
o This is the layer we’re trying to reach in the wilderness. These are the springs that will propel us to our second mountain. When we have touched these deeper sources, we have begun to make the ego our servant and not our master.
o Over the years, our ego has found a specific way it wants us to be in order to win the most approval - what Henri Nouwen calls the “ego ideal.”
- The ego wants us to point our life to the role that will make us seem smart, good- looking, and admirable.
- We spend a lot of time conforming to the ego ideal. Our ego prefers certainty to uncertainty, predictability over surprise, clarity over ambiguity.
- Our ego always wants to shroud over the barely audible murmurings of the heart.
- The ego wants us to choose a job and a life that we can use as a magic wand to impress others.
- It’s at this deep level that we sense a different life, one our ego cannot even fathom. There’s something in us that senses the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
- We’re at the first stage of renunciation—shedding the old self so the new self can emerge. It’s at this point we realize we are a much better person than our ego ideal. It’s at this point when you really discover the heart and soul.
Chapter 6 – Heart and Soul
o We are often taught by our culture that we are primarily thinking beings - Homo sapiens. Sometimes our schools and companies treat us as nothing but analytic brains.
o But when we’re in the valley, we get a truer and deeper view of who we really are and what we really need. When we’re in the valley our view of what’s important in life is transformed. We begin to realize that the reasoning brain is actually the third most important part of our consciousness. The first and most important part is the desiring heart.
o We are defined by what we desire, not what we know.
o Our emotions guide us.
- Our emotions assign value to things and tell us what is worth wanting.
- The passions are not the opposite of reason; they are the foundation of reason and often contain a wisdom the analytic brain can’t reach.
- The ultimate heart’s desire - the love behind all the other loves - is the desire to lose yourself in something or someone. Think about it: Almost every movie you’ve ever seen is about somebody experiencing this intense sense of merging with something, giving themselves away to something - a mission, a cause, a family, a nation, or a beloved. In the movie Casablanca, for example, Rick, has had his heart covered over. But love reawakens it. By the end he is a whole person again, committed, full of mission and desire.
- The ultimate desire is the desire for fusion with a beloved other, for an I–Thou bond, the wholehearted surrender of the whole being, the pure union, the intimacy beyond fear.
- In his novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernières described this last best stop on the journey of heart. An old guy is talking to his daughter about his love for his late wife. He tells her, “Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.” This is the heart fulfilled.
o The other, the more important part, of the consciousness is the soul.
- There is some piece of your consciousness that has no shape, size, weight, or color. This is the piece of you that is of infinite value and dignity.
- The dignity of this piece doesn’t increase or decrease with age; it doesn’t get bigger or smaller depending on your size and strength.
- Rich and successful people don’t have more or less of it than poorer or “less successful people.
- The soul is the piece of your consciousness that has moral worth and bears moral responsibility.
- A river is not morally responsible for how it flows, and a tiger is not morally responsible for what it eats. But because you have a soul, you are morally responsible for what you do or don’t do.
- Because you have this essence inside of you, your actions are either praiseworthy or blameworthy.
- Because you have this moral piece in you, you are judged for being the kind of person you are, for the thoughts you think and the actions you take.
- Because each person has a soul, each person is owed a degree of respect and goodwill from others.
- Because each person has a soul, we are rightly indignant when that dignity is insulted, ignored, or obliterated. Slavery is wrong because it insults the fundamental dignity of a human soul. Rape is not just an assault on a collection of physical molecules; it is an insult to a human soul. It is an obscenity. Obscenity is anything that covers up another person’s soul.
- The soul is the seedbed of your moral consciousness and your ethical sense.
- There’s never been a country where people are admired for running away in battle, or for double-crossing people who were kind to them.
- We seem to be oriented by these moral sentiments the way other animals are oriented by the magnetic field. They are embedded in our natures. “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within,” Immanuel Kant wrote.
- Mostly, what the soul does is yearn. If the heart yearns for fusion with another person or a cause, the soul yearns for righteousness, for fusion with the good.
- Socrates said that the purpose of life is the perfection of our souls - to realize the goodness that the soul longs for.
o Because we all have souls, we are all involved in a moral drama, of which we might have lower or higher awareness in any given moment. When we do something good we feel elevation, and when we do something bad we start making moral justifications.
o We, after we have brushed off the dust and chips of our life, will have left only the hard questions:
- Was it good or was it evil?
- Have I done well—or ill?
o If we look at world history or current events, we see how often events are driven by our need to feel morally justified, our need to feel righteous and to offer care, and unfortunately our need to assign guilt and feel morally superior.
o The odd thing about the soul is that while it is powerful and resilient, it is also reclusive. We can go years without really feeling the force of its yearning. We are enjoying the pleasures of life, building our career. It’s amazing how untroubled we can be, year after year, while your soul is out there somewhere far away. But eventually it hunts you down.
o In the valley, if you are fortunate, you learn to see yourself as a whole person. You learn you are not just a brain and a set of talents to impress the world, but a heart and soul - primarily heart and soul.
o Now everything you do for the rest of your life is likely to be testimony to that reality.
- When you ask people what experience made them the person they are, they never say, “I really was a shallow and selfish jerk until I went on that amazing vacation in Hawaii.”
- No, people usually talk about moments of difficulty, struggle.
- Journalist Malcolm Muggeridge put it bluntly, maybe a little too bluntly: “I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my 75 years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or attained.”
o The reason transformation happens in the valley is because something that had hitherto been useful and pleasant needs to die.
- That thing is the ego self, the impressive rational way of being we constructed for ourselves on the first mountain.
- People develop this ego self so they can perform the tasks of the first mountain: to bull your way into the world, get a job, make your mark, build an identity.
- But there is a deeper self underneath that can’t be seen unless the ego self falls away.
o After the old self is relinquished, the heart and soul have space to take control.
- Old desires are shed and bigger desires are formed.
- The movement is deepening inward and expanding outward.
- When you go down inside yourself, you find that there are longings in there that are only completed when you are loving and serving others.
- “And then,” says the poet Rilke, “the knowledge comes to me that I have space within me for a second, timeless, larger life.”
- When this relinquishment of the ego self and emergence of the heart and soul has happened, people are ready to begin the second mountain.
o Except they don’t describe it as another climb. They describe it, often enough, as a fall. They have let go of something, and they are falling through themselves.
- Most of us need an earthquake to push us into that fortunate fall.
- Our job now is to be defeated by ever grander things. It is to trust in life and surrender to the callings that will catch us and show us the way.
- You don’t have to be in control. You don’t have to impress the world.
- You’ve got the skill you earned on the first mountain and the wisdom you earned in the valley, and now is the time to take the big risk.
- The sowing is behind; now is the time to reap. The run has been taken; now is the time to leap. Preparation has been made; now is the time for the venture of the work itself.
o Most of us learn the following lesson gradually, over seasons of suffering, often in the wilderness. The lesson is that the things we had thought were most important – achievement (fancy job, big stock portfolio, the biggest house in the neighborhood, a garage full of high-end cars), affirmation, intelligence - are actually less important (much less important), and the things we had undervalued - heart and soul - are actually most important.
o Maybe some of us will learn these lessons while racking up professional success after professional success, or just being thoroughly loved, but for most of us the process is different: We have a season when we chase the shallow things in life. We are not fulfilled. Then comes hardship, which exposes the heart and soul. The heart and soul teach us that we cannot give ourselves what we desire most. Fulfillment and joy are on the far side of service. Only then are we really able to love. Only then are we able to begin the second journey.
Chapter 7 – The Committed Life
o Individualism versus second mountain:
- Individualism says shoot for personal happiness, but the person on the second
mountain says, no, I shoot for meaning and moral joy.
- Individualism says celebrate independence, but the second-mountain hero says, I will celebrate interdependence. I will celebrate the chance to become dependent on those I care for and for them to become dependent on me.
- Individualism celebrates autonomy; the second mountain celebrates relation.
- Individualism speaks with an active voice—lecturing, taking charge - and never the passive voice. But the second-mountain rebellion seeks to listen and respond, communicating in the voice of intimate exchange.
- Individualism thrives in the prosaic world, the world of career choices and worldly accomplishment. The second-mountain ethos says, No, this is an enchanted world, a moral and emotional drama.
- Individualism accepts and assumes self-interest. The second-mountain ethos says that a worldview that focuses on self-interest doesn’t account for the full amplitude of the human person. We are capable of great acts of love that self-interest cannot fathom, and murderous acts of cruelty that self-interest cannot explain.
- Individualism says the main activities of life are buying and selling. But you say, no, the main activity of life is giving. Human beings at their best are givers of gifts.
o The process of commitment making requires a vow of dedication, an investment of time and effort, a willingness to close off other options, and the daring to leap headlong down a ski run that is steeper and bumpier than it appears [or one might say jumping in the deep end! ]
o Thus, the most complete definition of a commitment is this: falling in love with something and then building a structure of behavior around it for those moments when love falters.
o Our commitments give us:
- Our identity
- A sense of purpose
- The ability to move to a higher level of freedom, not freedom from, but freedom to
- The ability to build our moral character
o A commitment is a promise made from love. A commitment is making a promise to something without expecting a return—out of sheer lovingness.
- There may be a psychic return on a good marriage, or from a commitment to a political cause, or from making music, but that is not why one makes it or why one does it. If a couple is actually in love, and you pull them aside and tell them that this love probably doesn’t make sense and they should forsake it, you will almost certainly not persuade them. They’d rather be in turmoil with each other than in tranquility alone.
- There is something that feels almost involuntary about a deep commitment. It happens when some person or cause or field of research has become part of your very identity. You have reached the point of the double negative. “I can’t not do this.” Somewhere along the way you realized, I’m a musician. I’m a Jew. I’m a scientist. I’m a Marine. I’m an American. I love her. I am his beloved.
o By steady dedication, you transformed a central part of yourself into something a little more giving, more in harmony with others and more in harmony with what is good than it was before. Gradually the big loves overshadow the little ones. People repress bad desires only when they are able to turn their attention to a better desire.
o When you’re deep in a commitment, the distinction between altruism and selfishness begins to fade away. When you serve your child it feels like you are serving a piece of yourself. That disposition to do good is what having good character is all about.
o In this way, moral formation is not individual; it is relational.
o Character is not something you build sitting in a room thinking about the difference between right and wrong and about your own willpower.
o Character emerges from our commitments. If you want to inculcate character in someone else, teach them how to form commitments—temporary ones in childhood, provisional ones in youth, permanent ones in adulthood.
o Commitments are the school for moral formation. When your life is defined by fervent commitments, you are on the second mountain.
Chapter 8 – The Second Mountain
o One task in life is synthesis. It is to collect all the fragmented pieces of a self and bring them to a state of unity, so that you move coherently toward a single vision. Some people never get themselves together; they live scattered lives. Some get themselves together but at a low level. Their lives are oriented around the lesser desires.
o Others get themselves together at a very high level. As the external conditions of life become more miserable, their internal state became more tranquil. And the way they achieve unity is not through an endless inner process of self-excavation. It is through an outer process of giving her whole self away.
o Joy is essentially a state of going somewhere, wholeheartedly, one directionally, without reservation or regret.
o The practical way we do that is through commitments—through making maximal commitments to things we really care about and then serving them in a wholehearted way.
o The core challenges of the second-mountain life are found in the questions:
- How do I choose my commitments?
- How do I decide what is the right commitment for me?
- How do I serve my commitments once they have been chosen?
- How do I blend my commitments so that together they merge into a coherent, focused, and joyful life?
o The second-mountain life is a spiritual adventure, lived out very practically day by day. It is a committed life, a life lived in service of a vocation, a marriage, a creed, and a community.