The Second Mountain

David Brooks writes a column for the New York Times. He describes himself as a conservative and a Republican. Here in Texas, those labels in the news have been co-opted by small-minded, mean-spirited, xenophobes trying to out do each other in how far they can push on the less privileged. Brooks does the opposite. He is broad minded, inclusive, and thoughtful. I don’t always agree with him, but he gives me new things to think about and new ways to think about them. In a world of polarities trying to shout each other down, he finds a third way. He’s a gentle radical. Like other true radicals, he knows his traditions and history. While being respectful of the spirit of those traditions, he will suggest ways to re-implement them in modern contexts.

“The Second Mountain” is about what C.G. Jung calls the second half of life problems when success, achievement, positions, and possessions (the first mountain) no longer have the appeal they once did. The second mountain is about the search and embodiment of deeper, more satisfying values that the world’s great spiritual teachers talk about.

You don’t climb the second mountain the way you climb the first mountain. You conquer the first mountain. You identify the summit, and 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.

p. xvi

Between the first and second mountain, there is a valley. The descent can be voluntary, e.g., the rat race no longer seems worth winning. Or involuntary: a divorce, a life threatening illness or accident, or financial (e.g., layoff, bankruptcy). Brooks lays out the terrain of the two mountains, the valley, and ways to navigate them.

The first purpose of this book is to show how individuals move from the first to the second mountain, to show what that kind of deeper and more joyful life looks like, step-by-step and in concrete detail. Everyone says you should serve a cause larger than yourself, but nobody tells you how.

The second purpose is to show how societies can move from the first to the second mountain. This is ultimately a book about renewal, how things that are divided and alienated can find a new wholeness.

p. xvii

The section on marriage I found the weakest. The preceding chapters on intimacy, I’m fine with. I’ve known my wife for nearly forty years. We lived together for over 35 years and have been married for 25. As one of our mentors said, “You’ve worked on it.” Much of Brooks’ ideas rang true, but several sections didn’t match up with my experience and Brooks didn’t leave himself much wiggle room or diversity of path. I’m not comfortable recommending his recommendations in the marriage chapters.

In many ways, the most intriguing chapter is “A Most Unusual Turn of Events”. As a child Brooks attended Hebrew school. In college and later, he distanced himself from the Hebrew stories as sacred scripture, but read them as secular stories on how to live life. It is his journey back to a faith that includes the Jewish culture, the Hebrew scriptures. and the New Testament (much of his education was in Episcopal schools) that I find fascinating. As a Buddhist-Christian trying to reconcile contradictions between and within the teachings from two traditions and many teachers far apart in time and space, I’m interested in his process and his conclusions. Also the differing Hebrew and Christian interpretations of the Hebrew scriptures is informative. For example, the Exodus story:

The trek through the wilderness is not only an ordeal that gives them strength. They are living out a narrative that gives them identity. Before long, they are singing. They are crossing the Red Sea, and Miriam and the other women are leading them in song. Soon, they are able to trust again. People who have been betrayed and oppressed cannot trust and therefore cannot have faith. But eventually, the Jews, even with all their constant kvetching and whining, do learn that sometimes promises are kept, that God abides. They become a people capable of faith, capable of receiving law, obeying law, and upholding their end of the covenant.

p. 214-215

Not an interpretation I’ve ever heard preached from a Christian pulpit.

After setting the background at the level of the individual, he goes for the larger message, “Community Building”.

On day in the late 1950s, Jane Jacobs was looking out her second-story window at her Greenwich Village street below. She noticed a man struggling with a young girl. The girl went rigid, as if she didn’t want to go wherever the man was leading her. The thought crossed Jacob’s mind the maybe she was witnessing a kidnapping. She was preparing to go downstairs to intervene when she noticed that the couple that owned the butcher shop had emerged from their store. Then the fruit man walked out from behind his stand, as did the locksmith, and a few people from the laundry “That man did not know it, but he was surrounded,” Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

It turned out to be nothing, just a struggle between father and daughter. But from it, Jacobs drew the right conclusion: that safety on the street is an healthy neighborhood not kept mostly by the police. It is kept by the “intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, enforced by the people themselves.”

p. 265

I have moved over forty times in my 68 years. As an adult, I’ve lived in apartments all but six of those years. I knew few of my neighbors and none of us stayed very long. That’s unlikely to build the commitment to the neighborhood necessary for the above scenario. Jacobs was probably living in an apartment in the above story. I’m unclear how an apartment complex like I live in can become a neighborhood. The management is trying and not succeeding.

There are physical neighborhoods and there are communities of like-minded people. I’m doing better being a community member: choir at church, part of the Austin area poets community (open mic participant, newsletter editor), and clergy spouse (e.g. pastoral visits).

The last chapter is “The Relationalist Manifesto,” outlining Hyper-Individualism and the problems it solves and how it has overshot its goal and become the problem. One thing that has emerged in my reading in both Christianity and Buddhism is the importance of relationships with other humans, with other life on this planet, and with the sacred (e.g., God, the dharma, Buddha nature). This is challenging material, both to individuals and to Western society.

Initially, I checked this book out of the library without problem. When it was due 3 weeks later, there were 7 people waiting for it. Increasingly, my wife and I are buying the books of living authors to support them, from small, independent book stores to support them. This is a book that is going to take several readings to digest and the rest of our lives to consider and implement. It needs to always be within reach.

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