"This is ultimately a book about renewal, how things that are divided and alienated can find new wholeness. Our society suffers from a crisis of connection, a crisis of solidarity. We live in a culture of hyper-individualism. There is always a tension between self and society, between the individual and the group. Over the past sixty years we have swung too far toward the self. The only way out to rebalance, to build a culture that steers people toward relation, community, and commitment — the things we most deeply yearn for, yet undermine with our hyper-individualistic way of life."
So writes David Brooks in the introduction to this follow-up to his bestseller The Road to Character. The New York Times columnist and television commentator is inspired by people "who seem to glow with an inner light." What animates this joy?
"They are kind, tranquil, delighted by small pleasures, and grateful for the large ones. These people are not perfect. They get exhausted and stressed. They make errors in judgment. But they live for others, and not for themselves. They've made unshakable commitments to family, a cause, a community or a faith."
They have, Brooks explains further, moved from the first mountain of self-interest, where they sought success, social standing, and personal happiness, to the second mountain of other-centeredness, where they seek relationships, interdependency, service, and moral commitment. In this book, he examines that journey, which we would describe as a deeply spiritual one.
The first mountain has been playing out its "moral ecology" for 50 years based on the assumptions of the buffered self, the Hidden Oracle within, the privatization of meaning, the dream of total freedom, and the centrality of accomplishment. Americans in this place affirm a kind of strident egotism and are skeptical of generosity and the helper's high of serving others. Other evidence of the dominance of the first mountain include consumerism, the therapeutic mindset, an epidemic of addiction, and the preference for technology over intimacy. In a culture enamored of "I'm Free to Be Myself" there is rampant personal isolation, lack of connections, and faltering communities.
Those on the second mountain are characterized by the relinquishment of the ego self and the emergence of the heart and soul. For them, a life well-lived is propelled by commitments which give us our identity, a sense of purpose, and a higher level of freedom, while building our moral character. Moral formation, Brooks notes, is "relational":
"Character is not something you build sitting in a room thinking about the difference between right and wrong and about your own willpower. Character emerges from our commitments. If you want to inculcate character in someone else, teach them how to form commitments — temporary ones in childhood, provisional ones in youth, permanent ones in adulthood. Commitments are the school for moral formation."
The last sections of this remarkable and inspiring book give equal energy to both personal transformation and societal transformation. Brooks gives examples of pioneering souls and organizations who are hard at work making America a better and more soulful place. He also does a fine job explaining the four commitments: vocation, marriage and family, philosophy and faith, and community.
We were very pleased to see the emphasis on "relationalism" as a way of life and the central task of any moral theology. Years ago in our magazine Values & Visions, we wrote:
"Relationships are the spiritual web of our lives. The crucial strands are family, intimate relationships, marriage, friends, community, nature, place, and the wider world. The quality of our spiritual lives is measured by these essential bonds.
"Relationships are the arena in which we exercise our values and express our visions. They enrich our lives with intimacy, purpose, healing, and wholeness. As we explore our relationships and feelings that come with them, we discover they are hitched to everything else in the world. Although terrible and divisive forces may eat away at our relationships, the spiritual web can never be destroyed. The Spirit sustains us as we patch and reweave the web again and again."
Brooks concludes The Second Mountain with "The Relationist Manifesto." It's a brilliant summary of a deeply moral and spiritual way of life that on both an individual and a community level can reweave our tattered world. "Being human is an accomplishment, like playing an instrument," Michael Ignatieff once observed. "It takes practice." In this toolkit of ideas, goals, and aspirations, David Brooks gives us much to practice and, most importantly, he cheers us on with a joyful enthusiasm.