Book Review: The Second Mountain by David Brooks

Some people love to hate on David Brooks. And his latest book, The Second Mountain, offers opportunity for his haters to hate: It’s a book about morality and values, in large part fueled by his own personal transformation over the past decade, including a decision to split from his wife and then, later, to marry his research assistant 20 years his junior. His critics are making hay over this aspect of his personal story. Personally, I find Brooks’ personal life not essential to understanding and even agreeing with the arguments in the book. Further, I’m not sure why divorce and re-marriage (even to someone younger than you) ought to subject someone to ridicule. So, I both enjoyed the book, and do not judge Brooks’ personal life.

I find the “two mountains” premise simple yet deep: The first mountain you climb in life is about worldly success, career achievement. You get to the top of the mountain and realize it’s not totally satisfying. “Is this all there?” you wonder. So you begin to climb a second mountain in life–a journey of searching for deeper meaning in life:

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. 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 first mountain you tend to be ambitious, strategic, and independent. On the second mountain you tend to be relational, intimate, and relentless.

This resonates personally, not that I’ve necessarily conquered any mountain yet in my life. It also resonates when I think about my friends later in life who are very much at the top of a career mountain but are still searching for…something. The Buddhist idea that getting what you want won’t make you happy — this truth, if indeed true, is incredibly profound. And it seems true.

Brooks lays out a bunch of interesting researched stories, personal anecdotes, and research snippets to make his case that leading a more purposeful life requires intentionality if you are to overcome the natural order of shallowness. For Brooks, part of the journey to a deeper life involved religion, and becoming a “confused Christian” in addition to his Judaism. The most compelling stories to me were about people who prioritized service and volunteerism in their lives.

Here are some of my highlights from the Kindle edition.


There are temporary highs we all get after we win some victory, and then there is also this other kind of permanent joy that animates people who are not obsessed with themselves but have given themselves away.

It’s all the normal stuff: nice home, nice family, nice vacations, good food, good friends, and so on. Then something happens. Some people get to the top of that first mountain, taste success, and find it…unsatisfying. “Is this all there is?” they wonder. They sense there must be a deeper journey they can take.

I’ve written this book, in part, to remind myself of the kind of life I want to live.

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.

This is the sudden bursting of love that you see, for example, on the face of a mother when she first lays eyes on her infant. Dorothy Day captured it beautifully: “If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure, I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms….No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.”

As Haidt notes, 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

All of this points in one direction: into the ditch. The person who graduates from school and pursues an aesthetic pattern of life often ends up in the ditch. It’s only then that they realize the truth that somehow nobody told them: Freedom sucks. Political freedom is great. But personal, social, and emotional freedom—when it becomes an ultimate end—absolutely sucks. It leads to a random, busy life with no discernible direction, no firm foundation, and in which, as Marx put it, all that’s solid melts to air.

If this sense of lostness can happen to a Tolstoy, then it can happen to anybody. After all, the rest of us can be haunted by the idea that we haven’t accomplished as much as we could. But Tolstoy was one of the greatest writers who ever lived and knew it. Wealth and fame and accomplishment do not spare anybody from the valley.

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. Nietzsche says that he who has a “why” to live for can endure any “how.” 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.

A lot is gained simply by going into a different physical place. You need to taste and touch and feel your way toward a new way of being. And there are huge benefits in leaving the center of things and going off into the margins.

The wilderness lives at the pace of what the Greeks called kairos time, which can be slower but is always richer.

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.

Maybe some of us will learn these lessons while racking up success after 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.

I’ve learned to never underestimate the power of a dinner table. It’s the stage on which we turn toward one another for love like flowers seeking the sun.
It is a paradox that when people are finding themselves they often have a sensation that they are letting go and surrendering themselves. You meet a person in need. At first you just commit to help them a little. An hour a week. It’s no big deal. But then you get to know and care about the person, and the hooks of commitment are set. Now you’ll do what needs to be done. At this point you just let go of the wheel. You stop asking, What do I want? and start asking, What is life asking of me? You respond.

When they are working with the homeless or the poor or the traumatized, they are laboring alongside big welfare systems that offer services but not care. These systems treat people as “cases” or “clients.” They are necessary to give people financial stability and support, but they can’t do transformational change. As Peter Block, one of the leading experts on community, puts it, “Talk to any poor person or vulnerable person and they can give you a long list of the services they have received. They are well serviced, but you often have to ask what in their life has fundamentally changed.”

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.

Like T. S. Eliot, Orwell believed that good writing involves a continual extinction of personality. One struggles, Orwell wrote, “to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.” The act of writing well involved self-suppression, putting the reader in direct contact with the thing described.

“Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him,” Walker Percy observes.

Technical, book knowledge, Oakeshott writes, consists of “formulated rules which are, or may be, deliberately learned.” Practical knowledge, on the other hand, cannot be taught or learned but only imparted and acquired. It exists only in practice. When we talk about practical knowledge, we tend to use bodily metaphors. We say that somebody has a touch for doing some activity—an ability to hit the right piano key with just enough force and pace. We say that somebody has a feel for the game, an intuition for how events are going to unfold, an awareness of when you should plow ahead with a problem and when you should put it aside before coming back to it. We say that somebody has taste, an aesthetic sense of what product or presentation is excellent, and which ones are slightly off.

Eighty-three percent of all corporate mergers fail to create any value for shareholders, and these mergers are only made after months and years of analysis. When making the big choices in life, as L.A. Paul puts it, “You shouldn’t fool yourself—you have no idea what you are getting into.”

In most key decision moments, there are actually many more options that are being filtered out by that point of view. Every time you find yourself saying “whether or not,” the Heaths argue, it’s a good idea to step back and find more options. Maybe the question is not breaking up with Sue or not; it’s finding a new way to improve your relationship.

You can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but you can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.

Who you marry is the most important decision you will ever make. Marriage colors your life and everything in it. George Washington had a rather interesting life, but still concluded, “I have always considered marriage as the most interesting event of one’s life, the foundation of happiness or misery.”

“I don’t really know of many happy marriages. I know a lot of marriages where parents love their kids.”
J. B Priestley once observed that there is probably no talk quite so delightful as the talk between two people who are not yet in love, but who might fall in love, and are aware that each has hidden reserves waiting to be explored.

“He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love,” King wrote.

Neuroticism, Tashiro continues, is what you want to avoid. It seems exciting and dramatic at first, but neurotic people are tense, moody, prone to sadness. Neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative emotions such as anger and anxiety with great force. “Neurotic individuals tend to have a history of turbulent and unstable relationships with others, including family and friends. They also tend to be prone to what looks like bad luck, but with time, one often sees that there are ways that their neuroticism evokes unfortunate

John Gottman, the dean of marriage scholars, grasped the essence: “Happy marriages are based on a deep friendship. By this I mean mutual respect for and enjoyment of each other’s company. These couples tend to know each other intimately—they are well versed in each other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams. They have an abiding regard for each other and express this fondness not just in big ways but in little ways day in and day out.”

Emotional knowledge, Roger Scruton argues, is knowing what to feel in certain situations—so that you can be properly disgusted by injustice, properly reverent before an act of self-sacrifice, properly sympathetic in friendship, and properly forbearing when wronged.

One morning, for example, I was getting off the subway in Penn Station in New York at rush hour. I was surrounded as always by thousands of people, silent, sullen, trudging to work in long lines. Normally in those circumstances you feel like just another ant leading a meaningless life in a meaningless universe. Normally the routineness of life dulls your capacity for wonder. But this time everything flipped, and I saw souls in all of them. It was like suddenly everything was illuminated, and I became aware of an infinite depth in each of these thousands of people. They were living souls. Suddenly it seemed like the most vivid part of reality was this: Souls waking up in the morning. Souls riding the train to work. Souls yearning for goodness. Souls wounded by earlier traumas. Souls in each and every person, illuminating them from the inside, haunting them, and occasionally enraptured within them, souls alive or numb in them; and with that came a feeling that I was connected by radio waves to all of them—some underlying soul of which we were all a piece.

Rabbi Heschel says that awe is not an emotion; it is a way of understanding. “Awe is itself an act of insight into a meaning greater than ourselves.”

Then, as now, I try to hire people who have some progression on their résumé that doesn’t make sense by the conventional logic of the meritocracy. I want to see that they believe in something bigger than the conventional definition of success.

There is a Muslim saying, Whatever you think God is, He is not that.

I experienced grace before I experienced God, and sometimes I still have trouble getting back to the source. But I find that as long as there are five or ten people in your life whose faith seems gritty and real and like your own, that keeps the whole thing compelling.

Later in life, Buechner found himself amid young Christians who spoke confidently about God as if they talked to Him all the time, and He talked back. God told them to pursue this job and not that one, and to order this at the restaurant and not that. He was dumbstruck. He wrote that if you say you hear God talking to you every day on every subject, you are either trying to pull the wool over your own eyes or everybody else’s. Instead, he continues, you should wake up in your bed and ask, “Can I believe it all again today?” Or, better yet, ask yourself that question after you’ve scanned the morning news and seen all the atrocities that get committed. If your answer to that question of belief is “yes” every single day, then you probably don’t know what believing in God really means, Buechner writes. “At least five times out of ten the answer should be No because the No is as important as the Yes, maybe more so. The No is what proves you’re human in case you should ever doubt it. And then if some morning the answer happens to be really Yes, it should be a Yes that’s choked with confession and tears and…great laughter.”

One of the signature facts of the Internet age is that distance is not dead. Place matters as much as ever, and much more than we ever knew. The average American lives eighteen miles from his or her mother. The typical college student enrolls in a college fifteen miles from home. A study of Facebook friends nationwide found that 63 percent of the people we friend live within one hundred miles. Americans move less these days, not more.

Hyper-individualism, the reigning ethos of our day, is a system of morals, feelings, ideas, and practices based on the idea that the journey through life is an individual journey, that the goals of life are individual happiness, authenticity, self-actualization, and self-sufficiency. Hyper-individualism puts the same question on everybody’s lips: What can I do to make myself happy?

 The tribalist is seeking connection but isolates himself ever more bitterly within his own resentments and distrust. Tribalism is the dark twin of community. The tragic paradox of hyper-individualism is that what began as an ecstatic liberation ends up as a war of tribe against tribe that crushes the individuals it sought to free.

One Response to Book Review: The Second Mountain by David Brooks

  1. Chris Yeh says:

    I think that people have an instinctive, emotional reaction to moralists with moral failings. It’s illogical but very common to believe that an individual’s personal behavior qualifies or disqualifies them from telling the rest of us how to live our lives.

    If you take this kind of thinking to its extreme, you end up deciding that you can’t learn morality from anyone other than, perhaps, Mr. Rogers and Mother Theresa. The likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. certainly wouldn’t make the cut. Neither would Descartes or Kant.

    But, at the same time, if the logical thing is to treat the messenger and the message as separate entities, then it is legitimate to separate Brooks from his work and to criticize Brooks’ life choices, if you disagree with them.

    In the case of Brooks (of whom I’m a long-time fan), I think the main criticisms are:

    1) Brooks is known as a conservative columnist who espouses the benefits of character, and has described divorce in his writing as self-destructive. By getting divorced, he reveals himself to be a hypocrite.

    2) A classic and much-disparaged stereotype of middle-aged men is that they divorce their wives and marry a much younger assistant. Brooks divorced his first wife at the age of 51, and later married his much-younger assistant. By conforming almost exactly to the classic stereotype, Brooks becomes, in the eyes of those critics, someone who should be disparaged.

    An interesting sub-point is why people deem “mid-life crisis man” so contemptible. I suspect that some of the contempt comes from the perceived unfairness of a man “trading in” his first wife after she has done the hard work of bearing and raising children together (three, in Brooks’ case) for a younger, presumably more physically attractive second wife. Of course, this itself needs to be unpacked; the description I provide above includes many instances of structural sexism, to wit:

    A) That our society values women disproportionately based on their physical appearance
    B) That our society believes that women are their most attractive in their early 20s, and that their attractiveness declines with age
    C) That women are the primary caregivers and parents to their children
    D) That men are valued disproportionately based on their professional success and wealth, and thus, become more attractive with age through roughly age 50-55
    E) That rich, famous, and powerful men should be accompanied by an attractive, generally younger wife (witness the attitude of the President of the United States in his attacks on my friend Heidi Cruz)

    While I do not agree with these assertions/assumptions, they collectively imply that many professionally successful men will want to divorce their first wives and marry younger second wives because the same passage of time that allows them to achieve professional success and increase in attractiveness simultaneously erodes the attractiveness of their first wives.

    Following this stereotypical pattern of behavior implies that you might buy into all of these sexist beliefs, regardless of how eloquently you argue otherwise in your public life.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *