David Brooks’ latest book, The Second Mountain – the Quest for a Moral Life, is a provocative study of how people can move from self-centeredness and hyper-individualism to joy.   Besides generating a thoughtful read, the book has implications for Christians whose joy appropriately centers around trying to live a Christ-like life.

The major theses of this book are as follows:

  • The first mountain for most people is culturally approved success – an elite education, a good job, a nice family, friends, social standing, and a satisfying career;
  • The second mountain often occurs following a valley of crisis: disillusionment, loss of job, loss of spouse (divorce or death), loss of a child, or intense suffering;
  • The second mountain can result in transformation to a joyful, other-centered existence where relationships, altruism, and love dominate; and
  • This transformation can result in commitment to a vocation (not a job), a spouse and family, a philosophy or faith, and/or a community. While happiness involves a victory for the self, true joy involves transcendence of self.

Brooks’ Life

The book is somewhat autobiographical.  Brooks’s climb toward success started with a true Judeo-Christian upbringing.  His family was Jewish with intense family-centered love and involvement with community.  The Jewish ethos was to finish the work that God began and build a better future for everyone.  However, he attended the Episcopal-sponsored Grace Church School and Church of the Incarnation (Episcopal) summer camp in New York City where he was exposed to the Christian ethos of selfless love.  He graduated from the University of Chicago where he studied the great books curriculum and had a televised debate with conservative economist Milton Friedman.  As a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist,” Brooks wrote a scathing parody on William F. Buckley who visited the campus and offered Brooks a job.  Brooks accepted the offer.  Ultimately Brooks became a moderate-leaning commentator now employed by the New York Times and the Public Broadcasting System.  The book is a distillation of individual joyful lives collected by Brooks who experienced a valley himself with a traumatic divorce in 2013.

Vocation, Marriage, Faith, and Community

According to Brooks, summons to a joyful vocation is a very holy thing.  It feels mystical.  It becomes an obsession.  While we commonly expect pastors to experience a “calling,” this feeling is not limited to men and women of the cloth.  Vocation is not about a career path; vocation must touch one’s deepest desires.  He quotes Frederick Buechner’s view of vocation, “Your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.”

The five chapters on marriage would make a challenging Sunday School series.  Perhaps they are included because a joyful marriage requires extreme selflessness.  Brooks summarizes, “At the far end, when a marriage is done well, you see people enjoying the deepest steady joy you will find on this earth.”  The success of marriage can be predicted by attachment to a caregiver as a small child.  90 per cent of securely attached people marry, and only 21% of these get divorced.  Poor caregiver (or parental) attachment culminates in a 50% divorce rate.  Marriage is all about good conversation.  Marriages are destroyed by contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

As Christians we can resonate with Brooks’s  four chapters on faith.  In the chapter on walls and ramps, he describes barriers and bridges to Christianity.  The walls are the siege mentality (Christians as victims in a culture war), bad listening replete with bumper-sticker maxims, invasiveness into others’ affairs,  and intellectual mediocrity.  Bridges include ritual and liturgy, unabashed faith, prayer as a desire-reorienting conversation with God, spiritual consciousness with its emphasis on heart and soul, the concepts of grace and redemption, and the sheer shock of the devoted Christian life.  The life and television ministry of Fred Rogers illustrate the Christian virtues of simplicity, vulnerability, and dependence.

Finally Brooks explores community building.  He warns us about the workaholic mindset that leaves little time for community.  Community is restored by people who are living on the second mountain.  Society must reconnect at the neighborhood level.  Here good neighbors must provide radical hospitality, act to address problems, inconvenience themselves for the community, and care for the least among us–the children, the poor, and the disabled.

An Example of the Second Mountain

Reading this book is a reminder of people I’ve known who are truly joyful.  I remember especially my widowed grandmother who housed several distant relatives in her home.   Her deeply Christian life was entirely other-centered.  She was the church librarian, and every child and adult in the church called her “Mother Mac.”  Her life was a simple one.  Her mantra was to never criticize anyone.  The thought of an elderly southern lady devoid of gossip seems an oxymoron, but she lived up to this ideal.  Her small community was a far better place for it.

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