The Second Mountain

I’m hooked on books from David Brooks.  I didn’t think he could top his self-reflecting Road to Character.  But then came The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.


In 2018, Brooks became Executive Director of The Aspen Institute.  You can gain more insight into the evolution of Brooks’ philosophy toward moderate conservatism through this WNYC interview with Alec Baldwin.  His views have changed over the past five years, and his experiences have led him to champion relationships over individual accomplishments, or the rise of the second mountain beyond the first mountain, as shared in this talk last month at Politics and Prose in D.C.

Here is the first mountain:  We get out of school, begin a career or start a family, and identify the mountain we think we ought to climb.  We all have to perform certain life tasks: establish an identity, separate from our parents, cultivate our talents, build a secure ego, and try to make a mark in the world.  People climbing that first mountain spend a lot of time thinking about reputation management.  The goals our culture endorses on the first mountain are to be a success, to be well thought of, to get invited into the right social circles, and to experience personal happiness.

And then something happens.  It might be an “Is this all there is?” self-generated moment or phase.  Or it could be an externally imposed failure that knocks us down a peg.  Something happens to our career, our family, or our reputation not necessarily of our own doing.  There is no longer a steady ascent up the mountain.  Some shrivel in the face of these challenges, dwelling in the valley while they nurse eternal grievances.  They don’t get the respect they desire.  They live their lives as an endless tantrum about some wrong done to them long ago.

But others emerge from the valley to ascend a second mountain.  They see deeper into themselves and realize that flowing from tender places is a fundamental ability to care.  A yearning to transcend the self and care for others.  They see familiar things with new eyes.  To love their neighbor as themselves, not as a slogan but a practical reality.  Their life is defined by how they react to moments of greatest adversity.  To climb the second mountain isn’t to reject the first mountain, but a journey to a more generous and satisfying phase of life.

For some that might mean radically altering their lives, say giving up a law practice and moving to Tibet.  Others stay in their basic fields but spend their time differently.   Still others stay in their same jobs and their same marriages, but are transformed, finding a renewed sense of purpose.

This book, as Brooks writes, was his attempt to kick himself in his own rear, part of his continued effort to write his way to a better life.  “I’ve also written it, I hope, for you.”

About Leonard J. Press, O.D., FAAO, FCOVD

Developmental Optometry is my passion as well as occupation. Blogging allows me to share thoughts in a unique visual style.
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