Climbing Second Mountain

looking west
Looking west to Second Mountain from a ridge of First Mountain – part of the Watchung Mountains in New Jersey

I live between First and Second Mountain of the Watchung Mountains. In this valley, with its small river as a dividing line, I am between two large stages of my life.

There are lots of ways you can divide a lifetime . At 21, I would have said there was my childhood, high school, and college. Now, all three seem to be just one part of my life.

David Brooks has written The Second Mountain and I picked up the book at the library because of that title and where I live. Brooks uses the climb up the first mountain as a mostly self-centered one. I found online descriptions for this part of life as “in search of résumé virtues” and finding “the skills you bring to the marketplace.”

The younger Brooks has written about related topics in his New York Times columns. His earlier book, The Road to Character, examined some thinkers and inspiring leaders trying to find how they built a strong inner character.

I believe most of us feel that we should live a life larger than ourselves. That “road” he wrote about earlier might be the one up Second Mountain. On this second journey, we are looking to lead a more meaningful life. But all around you on the mountain is a self-centered world, so how do you accomplish your goal?

I read that second mountain is not the place for finding and acquiring  résumé virtues, but a time to secure “eulogy virtues.”  These are “the ones that are talked about at your funeral.”

Brooks wrote Bobos in Paradise which is subtitled “The New Upper Class and How They Got There,” and is described as the stories of some self-centered bourgeois bohemians who were somewhere between “1960s values and 1990s money.” In some ways his books chronicle his own “road to character” journey. Fifteen years after Bobos,  he was a 50-something who was try to find meaning and “save my own soul.”

Before I started reading the book, I read an excerpt online and listened to a sample and I connected immediately to several passages. Here is Brooks on that first mountain:

“Every so often, you meet people who radiate joy—who seem to know why they were put on this earth, who glow with a kind of inner light. Life, for these people, has often followed what we might think of as a two-mountain shape. They get out of school, they start a career, and they begin climbing the mountain they thought they were meant to climb. Their goals on this first mountain are the ones our culture endorses: to be a success, to make your mark, to experience personal happiness. But when they get to the top of that mountain, something happens. They look around and find the view . . . unsatisfying. They realize: This wasn’t my mountain after all. There’s another, bigger mountain out there that is actually my mountain.”

On the second mountain – and not everyone wants to go there or is able to climb it –  your life should move from self-centered to other-centered.

We all know this desire, even if we don’t really desire the same things. On second mountain, you desire things that are truly worth wanting. You lose the desire for things other people tell you to want. Interdependence and not independence. A life of commitment.

Brooks defines four commitments for this life of meaning and purpose. First, is a commitment to a spouse and family. Next is a commitment to a vocation. He also lists commitment to a philosophy or faith. Finally, is a commitment to a community.

Although Brooks looks within, he also looks at others who have lived committed lives.

This might sound like a book for older people, but t really is better read by younger people for its guidance in choosing a partner, vocation, philosophy, and how to begin putting commitments into the climb of first mountain.

Society is probably not going to help your climb the second mountain. Society favors the first mountain’s freedom, individualism, and putting self first.

Brooks says that if you get to the top of that first mountain and are “successful” you may still find yourself unsatisfied. He writes that these people “sense there must be a deeper journey they can take.”

But some people get knocked off first mountain. “Something happens to their career, their family, or their reputation. Suddenly life doesn’t look like a steady ascent up the mountain of success; it has a different and more disappointing shape.”

And other people have something happen that knocks them off the path if not off the mountain. He writes that “the death of a child, a cancer scare, a struggle with addiction, some life-altering tragedy that was not part of the original plan” Where are they? “Whatever the cause, these people are no longer on the mountain. They are down in the valley of bewilderment or suffering. This can happen at any age, by the way, from eight to eighty-five and beyond. It’s never too early or too late to get knocked off your first mountain.”

That passage caught me. As I said, I literally live in a valley and so I wondered if I am also between the first and second mountains of my life.

Writers can take metaphors and analogies too far. Life is not all mountains and valleys. I know that I sometimes still live on that first mountain, but I have also made my way up the second mountain. I suppose I do live oftentimes in the valley between.

Brooks’ “small rebellions” that lead to the second mountain are to rebel against your ego ideal, and to rebel against mainstream culture. I can see my explorations of Buddhism and other spiritual journeys as a way to battle ego. I am not much of a rebel against culture. I haven’t pursued money, power or fame, but some of that is more due to a lack of opportunities than some nobility on my part. I suspect that on the first mountain I would have easily grabbed at all three of those things if I had the chance. I’m not sure that now I would rebel. I truly am living in that valley.

Someone who rebels and alters their life at any age has moved from one mountain to another. The book gives examples from the radical lawyer who gives up a law practice and moves to Tibet or quits a consultant job to teach in an inner-city school. He writes “I have a friend who built a successful business in the Central Valley of California. She still has her business but spends most of her time building preschools and health centers for the people who work in her company. She is on her second mountain.”

I taught for 45 years. It wasn’t inner-city schools but I am very comfortable with the work I did and I truly feel I made a positive impact on my part of the world.

This past week I climbed up my nearby mountain to a hawk watch. I could see from my perch on First Mountain the more rural Second Mountain to the west. And looking east, I could see a more urban landscape.

And looking east from First Mountain, I can see New York City in the distance across the Hudson River.

This is not a spoiler, but I will tell you that toward the end of the book, David Brooks has a kind of epiphany when he is hiking in Aspen. He was in a bad place in his life, coming out of a failed marriage. He pauses in his walking to read a Puritan prayer about the redemptive power of suffering. He says that he felt “the presence of the sacred in the realities of the everyday.”

Some people will find their second mountain through a crisis or religion or a spiritual practice. Some people will find the sacred only when they arrive on second mountain.

I like Brooks’ recounting of a lunch he had with the Dalai Lama. “He didn’t say anything particularly illuminating or profound, but every once in a while he just burst out laughing for no apparent reason.”

There is a reason for the laughter, but it is not apparent to all.

Published by

Ken Ronkowitz

A lifelong educator. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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