Scaling the Big Me and the Blessed Ambition of Moral Commitments

Review of The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David Brooks (Random House 2019). A shorter review was published in Christian Courier here. Brooks is also the recipient of the 2020 Kuyper Prize, awarded by Calvin University and Seminary. See his timely lecture on how politics has swallowed culture here. America, he writes in The Atlantic last month, is having a moral convulsion.

The Second Mountain is a sobering but also inspiring book about what life is really all about, and how we might re-weave the torn and fraying social fabric of modern life. Written pre-COVID, but somehow meant to address the loneliness exacerbated by it, David Brooks writes: “A half century of emancipation has made individualism, which was the heaven for our grandparents, into our hell” (32).

This book has guts in it. Here is the question I started with: do you dismiss as a hypocrite a public intellectual who divorced his wife of 27 years and married his much younger research assistant while writing a book called The Road to Character? Or do you buy his next book to see what he has learned through such public scandal, assuming a person is more than their worst moral failure (if that’s what it is)? Maybe there is a darkness of which David Brooks can speak with some familiarity, and that lends fresh insight into the shadows that follow us all.

I bought that next book because I’ve followed the Jewish journalist Brooks with some sense of affinity for many years and it was rumoured he had also converted to Christianity of late. The book also provocatively states: “I have become radicalized. I now think the rampant individualism of our current culture is a catastrophe.”

“It’s not about self anymore; it’s about a summons” (xiv).

The book (his “best to date” says The Guardian) brilliantly conveys a narrative about all our lives as we climb the mountain of identity and ambition and then realize, sooner or later, that there is much more to life than our individual advancement—our frenzy around what he has called The Big Me. Through insight or crisis we see that the good life invites us to make lasting moral commitments to places, people and causes that are much larger than our own personal fulfillment, and that the moral joy of such commitments is an even better pursuit than focusing even on our own character development.

That blessed ambition is the second mountain and the thesis of the book and is amply illustrated by inspiring stories – mostly about and from the United States. The bulk of the book investigates life’s four basic commitments in detailed self-help style, and how they can re-weave the social fabric: vocation, marriage, philosophy/faith, and community. The book ends with “The Relationalist Manifesto.”

But don’t be misled. The longest chapter by a long shot is chapter 21: “A Most Unexpected Turn of Events” in which Brooks narrates his marriage’s demise (which he attributes to his first mountain workaholism) and his second marriage to Anne Snyder, who is now editor of Comment magazine (succeeding James K. A. Smith). We find out there was a good three years of lonely apartment dwelling between his divorce and his romance with Snyder, and that his embrace of Christianity is more of a development in a lifelong inner dialogue between Christianity and his Jewish heritage. The details fill the story with a raw honesty and recognizable nuance.

This sprawling and intensely personal chapter focuses quite transparently on his on-going inner transformation as a religious “amphibian” or “border stalker.” He summarizes his spiritual journey this way: “Religion is hope. I am a wandering Jew and a very confused Christian, but how quick is my pace, how open are my possibilities, and how vast are my hopes.” For a book about the value of commitments, the following statement sounds odd, but also deeply vulnerable: “Do I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ? The simple, brutally honest answer is, it comes and goes.” 

“You conquer your first mountain. You identify the summit, and you 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” (xvi).

Brooks is a gifted writer of a different, and now more chastened conservative type. That means cultivating moral communities is still more strategic than big government political schemes; that culture is still more important than partisan politics. But he has publicly called Trump a “sociopath” and in his five chapters on marriage he makes no reference to gender complementarity. Lay your assumptions aside and see what you make of this many-layered man who lives what he writes – about a journey up a second mountain. For all those looking for a second chance in life – a more meaningful, more spiritual, more joyful attempt, beyond the precarious pitfalls of the Big Me—give this book a try. Then set your sights on giving yourself up to something larger than your life.

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