Character. Morality. Love. Commitment. Success. As difficult as these words may be to define (in a way that pleases everyone), we each go through life with our own views of what they mean; so when someone sets out to write about these topics, we may be more than a little skeptical. David Brooks, social and political pundit and author of The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, is very likely accustomed to encountering skeptical readers, as this is not his first such book. It may, however, be his most thought-provoking.
Brooks is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, though his social and cultural commentary also feature on such American news outlets as National Public Radio (NPR) and PBS News Hour. Born in Canada in 1961, he spent most of his formative years in the American northeast. His father taught English literature and his mother studied British history, so perhaps it’s natural that his interests would emerge in similar neighborhoods; his major at the University of Chicago was history, and his speaking and writing are generously peppered with references to classical and English literature.
Jewish by race more than by creed, Brooks’s religious leanings are by all accounts—including his own—difficult to pin down. “I seem to live my life as . . . a ‘border stalker,’ perpetually on the line between different worlds,” he writes in The Second Mountain.
“Politically, I am not quite left and not quite right. Professionally, I am not quite an academic and not quite a journalist. Temperamentally, I am not quite a rationalist but not quite a romantic.”
He also categorizes himself as not quite Christian and not quite Jewish (a not-unreasonable outcome for anyone who has read the Bible). “I grew up either the most Christiany Jew on earth or the most Jewy Christian,” he says, “a plight made survivable by the fact that I was certain God did not exist, so the whole matter was of only theoretical importance.”
That is, he notes, until certain life events shifted his focus. A painful divorce took him down new roads to what he calls a “second mountain,” demanding a renewed commitment to faith and other aspects of his life. This is the premise of his book—that Western society encourages us to view success as a sort of climb. To Brooks, this “first mountain” might be (depending on one’s culture and/or generation) the youthful ascent toward a chosen career goal, at the summit of which one might achieve financial rewards, a house, a car, a partner, 2-point-however-many children—and the envy and respect of friends and neighbors. However one defines success, the common denominator of the first-mountain ascent is that the focus is primarily on the self.
Some people skip the first mountain entirely, fortunate to be born and raised with the second already in view. For others, this first mountain is the only one they ever encounter. Still others climb them in succession. Perhaps they get knocked off their first mountain by unexpected failure. Or perhaps they reach the pinnacle they were aiming for, only to be hit by the realization that their initial view of happiness was a mirage; the fulfillment they imagined didn’t materialize. They may come to this on their own, or they may find themselves in a “season of suffering,” as Brooks puts it, that shifts their perspective dramatically.
Not everyone who falls off the mountain manages a transition to the second mountain, he concedes. “Some shrivel 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.” Others confront their inner depths, asking what they can learn from the suffering. This puts them in touch with the idea of life purpose and requires a rebellion against the simplistic and primarily Western belief that “success” and “happiness” can be achieved via independence and freedom from commitment. “The valley is where we shed the old self so the new self can emerge,” writes Brooks. “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.” Perhaps not surprisingly, given the author’s evolving faith, this neatly summarizes a key aspect of the Bible’s message.
Recognizing Second-Mountain People
You can tell, says Brooks, when individuals are on their second mountain. While they may appreciate life’s basic pleasures as much as first-mountain people, their real commitment is to something outside themselves. The joy they exude arises from a sense of purpose that comes from living for others. They’re in pursuit of “moral joy,” he says, “a feeling that they have aligned their life toward some ultimate good.” So before embarking up their second mountain, they have to ask the big questions: “What’s my best life? What do I believe in? Where do I belong?”
Commitment isn’t a dirty word to second-mountain people; nor is interdependence. Researchers have been linking both concepts to mental and physical health and well-being for decades. But in a culture that convincingly sells the notion that happiness can ultimately be achieved through personal independence and freedom from commitment, realigning one’s life arguably requires a complete about-face—a motivational shift. The purpose of his book, says Brooks, is first to show how individuals can move from the first to the second mountain, finding their ultimate purpose in interdependence and commitment, and then to show how whole societies can do this.
It’s a second-mountain sort of goal in itself, for sure, and there’s no question Brooks has spent a lot of time thinking about this. His history studies come to bear; and concepts from both the Old and the New Testament are also abundantly represented, although he doesn’t ask his readers to believe in God. “I’m a writer, not a missionary,” he says. “That is not my department.” Perhaps this is a cop-out, but to be fair, Brooks doesn’t expect everyone to find the second mountain in the same way he did. Indeed, his sometimes wandering but contemplative style of describing his faith indicates it’s still in the developmental stages.
What he does say is that those on the second mountain have found their “heart and soul,” and an understanding that we aren’t primarily thinking beings in the way our culture teaches us we are. Rather, says Brooks, “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.”
But when it comes to understanding our deepest passions, we often misconstrue what our emotions are telling us, particularly when we’re feeling dissatisfied. For instance, if we’re unhappy at work, maybe it’s not because we aren’t making enough money. Maybe it’s because our work is at odds with our true sense of purpose. If we’re dissatisfied with our marriage, maybe it’s not because we long for independence. Maybe we haven’t given ourselves fully to and for our spouse.
“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.”
When we really examine our passions, we find that what we long for as human beings is to do something that matters—to make a soul-deep, abiding commitment to something worthwhile.
Brooks defines the soul as “the piece of your consciousness that has moral worth and bears moral responsibility.” It’s the part of our heart that yearns for something transcendent, such as giving oneself over to a worthy cause or fusing with another person. On the second mountain, whether we’ve arrived there via suffering or simple disillusion with first-mountain success, we discover that the deepest passion of our soul is for commitment. This is the very antithesis of what society offers most of us. It’s little wonder, then, that after buying into the belief that independence and self-reliance are king, so many souls feel empty and turn to various forms of self-medication or to the manic pursuit of wealth or pleasure in a vain effort to fill themselves up.
Brooks separates commitment into four areas that are common to most of us: vocation, spouse and family, philosophy or faith, and community. He dedicates an entire section of his book to each, though all four “require 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.”
This is clearly different than the message individualistic societies send: Learn to love yourself first before you love someone else. Keep your options open. When we look closer at catchphrase advice like this, we can see where it falls short. You can’t love yourself first if you don’t know what love is; and we learn what love is by loving others and being loved. And studies confirm what we should already know from experience: Keeping our options open actually makes us less satisfied with the outcomes of our decisions. We can certainly see the effect this might have on a marriage, but it applies to other decisions as well.
The second mountain, Brooks writes, is all about promise making. “It is about making commitments, tying oneself down, and giving oneself away. It is about surrendering the self and making the kind of commitment that, in the Bible, Ruth made to Naomi: ‘Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried.’”
These are not the words of someone who was keeping her options open. They’re identity-changing words. They freely assert: I’m not subject only to my own desires now. I’m taking you permanently into consideration. My sense of purpose is tied to yours.
The Value of Commitment
Those of us who are still on our first mountain may be wondering what we can expect to get out of this whole commitment thing. How would we benefit in a concrete way if we really did kill the old, independent, self-interested self and resurrect the new, interdependent, committed-to-the-interest-of-others self?
Brooks lists four fundamental benefits of commitment, although likely there are more.
- “Our commitments give us our identity. They are how we introduce ourselves to strangers. They are the subjects that make our eyes shine in conversation.” The commitments we make are the outline of our story; they tell us and others who we are and what motivates us.
- “Our commitments give us a sense of purpose.” More than simply a reason to get up in the morning, our commitments give our life meaning, without which we flounder when times get hard.
- “Our commitments allow us to move to a higher level of freedom.” Many things that look like restrictions actually free us from mediocrity: “You have to chain yourself to the piano and practice for year after year if you want to have the freedom to really play. You have to chain yourself to a certain set of virtuous habits so you don’t become slave to your destructive desires—the desire for alcohol, the desire for approval, the desire to lie in bed all day.”
- “Our commitments build our moral character.” If you read The Road to Character (also by Brooks), you might think you have a pretty good handle on his definition of moral character. But when Brooks wrote the earlier book, he “was still enclosed in the prison of individualism.” After his divorce, his view changed: “I no longer believe that character building is like going to the gym: You do your exercises and you build up your honesty, courage, integrity, and grit,” he says. “I now think good character is a by-product of giving yourself away.”
At its essence, character formation is relational. It’s about how you treat others. You can’t build it by sitting on your own, trying to summon the willpower to live by some code of right and wrong that you’ve devised from your own contemplations. The serenity that he called moral joy, he says, arrives as we begin to embody perfect love. Commitments help us build moral character precisely because they require us to give, serve, put others before ourselves. “In my experience,” he writes, “people repress bad desires only when they are able to turn their attention to a better desire. When you’re deep in a commitment, the distinction between altruism and selfishness begins to fade away.”
The conclusion of the matter for Brooks? His final chapter is a manifesto that includes a Declaration of Interdependence. He writes passionately and convincingly about the need for one as the world struggles through its current challenges. As society comes to the realization that individualism hasn’t worked to produce universal happiness or to solve worsening global problems, tribalism is stepping in to take its place.
“If we as a society respond to the excesses of ‘I’m Free to Be Myself’ with an era of ‘Revert to Tribe,’ then the 21st century will be a time of conflict and violence that will make the twentieth look like child’s play.”
“There is another way to find belonging. There is another way to find meaning and purpose. There is another vision of a healthy society,” Brooks argues. “It is through relationalism. It is by going deep into ourselves and finding there our illimitable ability to care, and then spreading outward in commitment to others.”
Learning by Doing
While Brooks presents an interesting and useful analogy to help his readers compare two ways of living life (we might call them “the way of getting” versus “the way of giving”), he stops short of recommending a specific set of values to live by. He shares his thoughts about faith, and the reader quickly senses he is still wondering about and exploring the concept. He lists “walls” in the mainstream Christian narrative that have made his journey toward understanding more difficult, and some “ramps” that have smoothed his way toward faith.
Many of us can likely identify with the walls (most could come under the single heading of self-righteousness). But perhaps missing in the discussion of ramps toward faith is one we might call “the proof of the pudding.” Living the way of giving brings certain results, and that’s the kind of proof that reinforces religious faith, elevating it beyond a philosophical exchange or inner struggle to an unshakable conviction.
This is where the discussion becomes difficult, however. As Brooks notes, “the religious life is not just abstract thinking and feeling. It involves concrete practices, being with actual people, entering actual community.” But what concrete practices define Christianity when there are so many different brands, each with its own standards and practices?
What is fascinating about Brooks is that he has practiced in both Jewish and Christian communities, gaining insight from both. Jesus was a practicing Jew, as were His early followers. The first-century Church kept “Jewish” Sabbaths and holy days and used them to teach what many would consider a Christian future: a kingdom to be established by God and ruled by Jesus as the Christ. Brooks points out (with good reason) that we learn by doing; he writes that ritual is one of the ramps that support faith and help us learn. While he doesn’t complete the connection, it doesn’t take much of a leap to conclude that Jesus taught His followers to keep certain days with that precise aim in view.
Brooks doesn’t go so far as to recommend following the actual practices of Jesus and His followers (“I’m a writer, not a missionary”). Still, we might expect him to, considering his background, and it’s a reasonable ideal to set for Christian practice. It would certainly make one a very “Jewy Christian” (or a very “Christiany Jew”) to attempt to live that way, and doing so could prove difficult. A well-known quote from G.K. Chesterton leaps to mind: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
Certainly faith can be a very difficult commitment to make. And yet, writes Brooks, “consider the possibility that a creature of infinite love has made a promise to us. Consider the possibility that we are the ones committed to . . . and that the commitment is to redeem us. . . . That is why religion is hope. I am a wandering Jew and a very confused Christian,” he says, “but how quick is my pace, how open are my possibilities, and how vast are my hopes.”