Book: The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, by David Brooks
Source: New York Times
Book review by Mark Epstein, who is a psychiatrist in New York City. His latest book is “Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself.”
The ego, a necessary construction, can also become a burden. In its unrelenting focus on power, achievement and sensual gratification, it breeds a culture, both inner and outer, of oppression, insecurity, addiction and loneliness. Enough is never enough. There is always someone richer, more accomplished and more successful than you are. Spiritual traditions across the world have offered counsel. The happiness that comes from accumulation is fleeting, they remind us. There is another kind of happiness, let’s call it joy, that comes from helping others.
David Brooks has a feel for the serenity such a passion can bring. He dubs it the second mountain. While self-satisfaction is the first mountain’s primary goal, gratitude, delight and kindness spring from a life devoted to service. “In the cherry blossom’s shade,” a Japanese haiku reminds us, “there’s no such thing as a stranger.” Surrender of self awakens love and connection.
Brooks is an unlikely avatar of interdependence. A prominent journalist and columnist at The New York Times, he is, by his own description, a workaholic and insecure overachiever. Part memoir and part manifesto, “The Second Mountain” is a chronicle of his gradual climb toward faith. In a sparkling and powerful introduction, Brooks equates the shortcomings of Western culture with his own failings as a husband. “My first mountain was an insanely lucky one,” he writes. “I achieved far more professional success than I ever expected to. But that climb turned me into a certain sort of person: aloof, invulnerable and uncommunicative, at least when it came to my private life. I sidestepped the responsibilities of relationship.” Brooks does not mince words here. The rampant individualism of our ego-obsessed culture is a prison, he declares, a catastrophe.
First mountain people are divided, alienated and insufficient. They suffer from “a rot” in their “moral and cultural foundations” that is mirrored by “the rot we see in our politics.” Second mountain people, having given themselves away, lead lives of deep commitment. For them, happiness is good but joy is better. “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. People who are on the second mountain have been transformed. They are deeply committed. The outpouring of love has become a steady force.”
This is beautiful stuff. In admitting to his failure as a husband, Brooks tantalizes with a promise to chronicle his own unsteady recovery. In this, he only partially delivers. As soon as he alludes to the problems in his marriage he offers a disclaimer. “My ex-wife and I have an agreement that we don’t talk about our marriage and divorce in public,” he writes. In what was initially a mea culpa, he offers the barest of apologies. “I prioritize time over people, productivity over relationship.”
But something severe must have happened to throw Brooks into the dark night of his soul. In 2013, his marriage of 27 years dissolved. He moved into an apartment. He missed his children, was lonely, ashamed and adrift. To set himself right, “having failed at commitment,” he decided to write about people who “do commitments well.” He does this with a feel for those who, rather than succumbing to their own personal traumas, turn toward helping others and, in so doing, renew the lost sense of community that afflicts an America whose churches, neighborhoods, mores and cultural institutions are all in decline. What follows reads, unfortunately, like one long commencement address.