Mountains and the Meaning of Reading

by Juniper Locilento (October 29, 2019)

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David Brooks, Random House (April 16, 2019), 384 pp., $26.06

The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall, Simon & Schuster (August 13, 2019), 352 pp., $21.83

Reading is one of my greatest pleasures. I’ve chosen the world of books over the actual world for as long as I can remember and nothing is more precious to me than a stretch of uninterrupted reading time, especially under a tree on a sunny day. 

My choices are roughly split between fiction and non-fiction. I find reading non-fiction to be mostly a head-centrered pursuit, whereas fiction tends to speak more to the heart. On very rare occasions, the two converge to offer an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts: this is what happened when I set out to review David Brooks’ The Second Mountain and casually selected The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall to read concurrently. My experience of these two works is utterly entwined and my appreciation of each has been enriched by the other.

Brooks, who describes himself as a cross between a journalist and an academic, has set for his topic nothing less than the meaning of life. Or rather, how to live a meaningful life. He uses two mountains and the valley between to illustrate this journey: the first mountain is all ego – success, wealth and accolades. He argues that while scaling the first mountain may bring happiness, it will fail to offer joy because it is too focused on the self, particularly in our present day of hyper-individualism. 

Brooks describes the moral ecologies that have shaped the aspirations and experiences of recent generations: the post-war ethos of “we’re all in this together” leading to the 1960’s philosophy “I’m free to be me”. Today, meritocracy is king: smartest and most accomplished is best and your kids need “grit” to survive. But individualism taken too far becomes tribalism (the “dark twin” of community) and today’s looming crisis of loneliness could well be attributed to an overemphasis on freedom, authenticity and autonomy. 

David Brooks

He suggests that most people will experience a “season of suffering”, described as a “crisis of loneliness, distrust and a lack of meaning” at which point they will find themselves in the valley. And our view from the valley transforms our understanding of what is important: specifically, suffering shatters the illusion of self-sufficiency to which we have been clinging.

If the first mountain is defined by independence, the second is about interdependence. It’s about getting past ego. Brooks argues that you are on the second mountain when your life is defined by “fervent commitments” which offer identity, a sense of purpose, a higher level of freedom and the opportunity to develop moral character. Beyond the fleeting happiness that may come with first mountain successes, the second mountain is about losing the self and finding fulfillment and joy “on the far side of service”. If the first mountain is described by words like “ambitious, strategic, independent”, the second mountain is illustrated by “relational, intimate, relentless”. 

Brooks offers lengthy descriptions of the second mountain commitments of vocation, spouse and family, philosophy and faith and community and explores what it means to make such commitments. It’s the shift from “what do I want?” to “what is life asking of me?” and giving figures heavily:

“We think of giving as something we do on rare occasions, on Christmas and birthdays. But the German theologist Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued that giving is the primary relationship between one person and another, not the secondary one. It is family member to family member. Friend to friend. Colleague to colleague. People to community. It is the elemental desire to transform isolation and self-centredness into connectedness and caring. A personality awakens itself by how it gives.” 

The middle third of the book is a detailed exploration of the four commitments as well as a personal memoir of sorts: Brooks’ own experience of the valley following a divorce and crisis of faith. And this is where I realized that the novel I was reading concurrently spoke – perhaps more effectively – of the exact commitments and challenges that Brooks wanted to explore. 

The Dearly Beloved tells the story of two couples – Charles and Lily and James and Nan – brought together by vocation, entwined as (respective) spouses, questioning philosophy and faith and ultimately finding strength in community following their own time in the valley. In simple yet stunning prose, it illustrates virtually every idea espoused in The Second Mountain. Each time I grew weary of Brooks’ exposition, I found both respite and joy in Wall’s storytelling of strikingly similar subject matter.  

In the novel, both Charles and James have been called to ministry, yet James is motivated more by social justice than faith. Nan, James’ wife, longs for motherhood and camaraderie but is denied both. Lily, Charles’ wife, is a fervent non-believer whose treasured independence must be sacrificed to their son while Charles experiences a crisis of faith in light of his illness.  To be clear, my own beliefs are aligned firmly with Lily’s in the non-believer camp, but that didn’t stop me from savoring every sentence. In fact, I suspect that Brooks’ work grounded for me the abstract concepts of faith and enabled me to appreciate them in spite of my own lack of religious conviction.

Conversely, where I found myself bristling at Brooks’ instruction on marriage and family, I swooned at Wall’s description of motherhood: 

“In the little child were boundless opportunities, and so there were for her, too. For every time Lola was happy, she would be happy. Every time Lola was unhappy, she would be unhappy. Her life was doubled, instantly, and she felt the new length of it, the breadth of it, like opening a door one day and discovering her kitchen had turned into the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. She wanted to wander the halls endlessly.” 

Brooks asserts that the neighborhood is the essential unit of social change and argues that community – which has been lost to our worship of independence and autonomy – can be restored by those who have reached the second mountain and experienced interdependence. Those who put community over self. The Second Mountain concludes with a 17-page Relationist Manifesto. The concepts are solid but it’s a case of tell, rather than show, and it pales in comparison to the poignancy of The Dearly Beloved, in which all four of the characters come through their own valleys and find purpose and joy in community on their second mountains. 

Cara Wall

It’s impossible for me to evaluate my experience of these books independently; they have become utterly interdependent. They bring together head and heart to grapple with the biggest questions about purpose and offer meaningful guidance to those who are ready to begin climbing their own second mountain. 

Charles, returning to the pulpit after a long absence offers the following: 

There are three kinds of trials in life…there are the trials God gives you…which almost always lead to wisdom, and so are worth the trouble. There are the trials you force upon yourself, which should be abandoned at their onset…And there are the trials we create for one another, which are more complicated because it is impossible to know whose hand is guiding them.

The only advice I can give anyone is this…Don’t ever shrink from those last trials. Run to them. Because only in the quality of your struggle with one another will you learn anything about yourself. Sometimes that struggle is nearly impossible to survive, but it is those trials which make a life.”

No doubt David Brooks would agree. 

(Juniper Locilento, MPNL, CFRE is Senior Director, Development at the YMCA of Greater Toronto, serves as Vice President of Public Affairs, AFP Greater Toronto Chapter, and is a lecturer in the Fundraising Management Program at Ryerson University’s Chang School.)

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