Thoughts on David Brooks’s THE SECOND MOUNTAIN

Thoughts on David Brooks’s THE SECOND MOUNTAIN

Every so often I come across a book that not only speaks to the very concerns with which I am most engaged at the moment but also bounces me off in a completely unexpected direction. Read on to hear how David Brooks’s book, THE SECOND MOUNTAIN, left me feeling more committed to the idea of creating a “good life” by strengthening bonds within my community(ies) and why we desperately need to begin a conversation about shared morals and values again. 

A Question of Values

Sometime between the middle of 2020, I started writing down notes about values. I had this idea for a collection of essays about the key values and morals that people once deliberately taught their children–i.e. the “difference between right and wrong”–and societal institutions like church, Sunday school, Boy and Girl Scouts, and school advocated. While I was no longer a religious person and a proclaimed Agnostic, I realized that my upbringing in Evangelical Christianity instilled a number of values/morals that helped me to be a decent citizen, a productive and helpful member of society, and a good neighbor and friend.

My husband and I tried to instill many of these values in our daughter without attending church. We talked about things like honesty, respect, reliability, doing your best, and being kind. School did not seem very committed to values education. In an effort to create community, I ran a Girl Scout troop for four years and found the Girl Scout Law pretty comprehensive, but our troop eventually disbanded. 

Anyway, what I noticed as a parent was this: without institutional and societal “back-up,” trying to instill these values into my daughter’s heart and mind was made 100% more difficult. I looked around and wondered how many parents out there deliberately spoke about values and morals to their children the way we did. Did they talk to their kids about being truthful? Did they discuss kindness? Working hard, not cheating, to get good grades? I assumed most did, at least occasionally. But what exactly were they teaching, I wondered? Were the values they espoused the same as ours? 

One thing was clear. There was no coherent societal or community values system, no central community institution (other than public school which did focus on an anti-bullying message along with the extreme importance of standardized test preparation) that everyone participated in, understood the importance of, and agreed upon. 

I mentioned this many times to various friends and my husband and pretty much anybody who would listen to me. By 2010, cell phones and laptops and especially social media (which we now know had severe impacts on children, especially girls) slammed into society and families like a tsunami of dysfunction. “How,” I asked (wailed), “can I keep my daughter away from social media when the school is providing a laptop? When all the other parents are allowing their kids to have cell phones?” 

I knew Facebook was bad news. I felt it in my bones. I held out for several years. But disallowing my daughter a phone only made her social development difficult and caused family tension you wouldn’t believe. I also found out that kids had no trouble figuring out proxies to get around the school’s Facebook block. 

Then there was the question of clothing and grooming. I talked and talked and talked about self-respect and modesty to very little avail. I won’t even get into the great “mascara on 12-year-olds” debate that lasted the better part of two years. 

My daughter (in those years but not forever) turned into someone who did NOT exhibit the values with which she’d been raised. I myself did not always adhere to the very values I’d been taught and was attempting to instill. There was an ethos of striving and trying to be seen. Ego not service. A friend and I discussed what ever happened to The Golden Rule? Who or what was the blame for this weird lack of common values in a society that had been founded, or so I’d been taught, on many humanist-positive values? Yes, imperfectly executed, but still stated as an ideal. What had gone wrong?

“The individualistic ethos, which has sometimes been called ‘selfism,’ was pumped into the boomers with their breastmilk, and it will be drained from every cavity by their mortician.” –David Brooks, THE SECOND MOUNTAIN

Selfism is a Societal Thing

We are somewhat the products of our generation. My daughter was growing up thirty years into an era of individualism that started right around the time my husband and I were born. Like all adolescents, she encountered peer values and morals in school. These were peers whose parents taught values different from mine because there was no communal value system. We have no such system. We have “individual choices” and “free to be me” and “anything goes.” Needless to say, this was a difficult season in our family history. 

Though obviously not perfect, I think my husband and I provided 1) stability 2) a good example and 3) deliberate, verbal values teaching. This was a combination pre-1960s work/morals ethic and the individualism of our Gen X era.  A “Be yourself as long as you don’t hurt anyone else” message infused with more than a little “Do your best and you’ll succeed in life” brainwashing. Our kid is now a well-functioning adult. She turned out to be a good person after a few years of struggle and growing-up, but there were times, believe me, when I wondered if I’d totally failed as a parent.

But the key is, it would have been easier with some community and institutional norms behind me. How does this relate to Brooks’s book? 

Our society, he says, has been in a decades-long thrust toward individualism. This was an important turn in the 1960s to correct some of the problems of a value system that hurt some people: minorities, women, etc.

“The individualistic ethos, which has sometimes been called ‘selfism,’ was pumped into the boomers with their breastmilk, and it will be drained from every cavity by their mortician,” Brooks writes.

He goes on a paragraph later, saying that it wasn’t all for the bad. “I just want to emphasize that the march toward freedom produced many great outcomes. The individualistic culture that emerged in the sixties broke through many of the chains that held down women, and oppressed minorities. It loosed the bonds of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia.”

However, the good, when taken too far, tipped over into dysfunction when it eroded the deep, underlying human need for connection. “In a culture of ‘I’m Free to Be Myself,’ individuals are lonely and loosely attached,” he writes. Brooks insightfully explores the tendency of humans, when faced with uncertainly and disconnection, to “collect” in one of two ways: community or tribes. Community and tribalism are two sides of the same coin. A positive “community” side and a negative “tribal” side. Community comes together to solve problems. Tribes come together to fight a perceived or created or imagined enemy. Community includes. Tribes exclude. Community wants connection and love. Tribes thrive on distrust and hatred of “the other.” 

Guess where we are right now? And what can we do to take the positive, community approach? Brooks spells out, in the last part of his book, his argument for a “relationalist” society. We have the option to reject the hyper-individualism and to instead embrace relationships as the foundation of our lives. 

“When a person finds his high calling in life, it doesn’t feel like he has taken control; it feels like he has surrendered control. The most creative actions are those made in response to a summons.” –David Brooks, THE SECOND MOUNTAIN

Reject hyper-individualism

Brooks spends many chapters talking about his “second mountain.” The first is the initial ego-driven march up the success mountain. This is all about individual achievement, and is not necessarily all bad, he says. Inevitably, there comes a valley, when a person realizes that everything they strived for isn’t all that important or has failed in some way. At this point, a person begins to seek a higher calling. They see the interconnectedness of life. They want to be of service rather than strive for self-attainment. They find a purpose. A high calling. This is the second mountain. 

Along the way, he explores love & marriage, work, religion, and community building. It’s almost as if he is parenting the reader! Look, he seems to be saying. Here is what I know. Here is what I can tell you. Let’s all discuss this. Let’s join together and be a community. Let’s be a FAMILY, even. Let’s look out for one another. Let’s set aside individualism for a moment and think about ourselves as one. And then he lays out a manifesto. 

“There is another way to find belonging. There is another way to find meaning and purpose. There is another vision of a healthy socity. It is through relationalism. It is by going deep into ourselves and finding there our illimitable abilty to care, and then spreading outward in commitment to others.” 

Pow!

The manifesto–multi-pronged and numbered–is pretty awesome.  I’m feeling kind of in awe of this fellow Gen Xer who in his tender, thoughtful, rational way has given us a roadmap to follow if we are brave enough to pick it up. 

So, how has this turned me in a different direction? It’s the religion part. For years I’ve rejected religion and church, mostly because my upbringing showed me the ugliest sides of Evangelical Christianity. The hypocrisy, the judgement, the egotistical and narcissistic leaders, the platitudes, the rules based on not-very-sophisticated interpretation of a “scripture,” the insistence on complete, unquestioning belief, the self-righteousness and lack of humility. Did I mention the hypocrisy?

(See the Vanity Fair article about Jerry Falwell, Jr. and his big ol’ daddy Falwell. This kind of religion/church was my childhood. It’s no wonder I ran screaming in the other direction. If you enjoy this kind of church, I’m not judging you. It’s just not for me. And maybe your church is very different from the one I grew up in. Even if it is the same church. If you get me. Wink.)

But as I always sensed, and Brooks makes clear, we lost something in our society when we abandoned church. There were good things there, too. Community, for one. A sense of belonging and a place and people to turn to in dark times. And of course the values education I’ve been going on and on about. 

I miss that part.

I’m not saying I’m running out to join a congregation. I will never believe 100% in a scripture or even necessarily in the metaphysical, though I have always believed there is more to our universe than we can currently comprehend. We are always discovering something new, and some experiences can’t be rationally explained–yet. Science doesn’t deal in absolutes, only approximate truths and theories. In this way, science and so-called metaphysics don’t necessarily cancel each other out for me. For me, the search is more about what a religious teaching can tell us about how to be human in an imperfect world, feeling uplifted by song and ritual and beauty, and finding community where I can serve others in some capacity. 

I’ll be searching. That is the pivot.

Thanks, Mr. Brooks. 

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. RM

    As a follow up, you might like Overcoming Toxic Polarization. It explains how the individualism and tribal thinking leads to polarization and people trying to “fix a cloud”. It is interesting stuff

    1. Shelley Burbank

      Thanks, Beck. I will take a look at that book for sure. Sounds like a great companion to Brooks!

  2. Jason Trask

    What a great article / book review / essay you’ve written here. Your experience matches completely what my wife and I went through as we were attempting to bring up our kids. Luckily we only had one come up during the cell phone craze, and Facebook was only a thing during his last couple of years of high school, but it did feel as if very few parents were teaching their kids the essentials.

    When our youngest son was a senior in high school, he came home and announced that he was going to spend the weekend with his girlfriend in a small cabin in the woods. Her parents were religious Republicans and they had no problem with it, but we, complete agnostics, did. He couldn’t believe it. We told him it wasn’t going to happen and it turned into a very scary moment, but he finally went along with our wishes and later that year he understood why we had made the decision we did make. And by the way, it wasn’t only about him having sex with her. There was a lot more that would take a long time to explain. I think most parents will understand what I’m talking about.

    I too grew up in a religious home. In fact my father was an Evangelical minister, and I rebelled completely, though the part about honesty and loving your neighbor as yourself
    , etc., stuck–well, for the most part–some of it took a while to kick in. There’s a verse in the Bible that says, “Bring up a child in the way that he is to go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” I have found that to be true. My parents always thought they had failed because I rejected their religion, but I did not reject it’s essential values. Something does need to take the place of religion. I had two friends when I lived in New York City who were brought up in an institution called the “Ethical Culture Society.” They were really good people. https://ethical.nyc/

    1. Shelley Burbank

      Thank you, Jason. It’s hard to explain to people who haven’t been brought up in a strict religious household that the values stick even if the belief doesn’t. There is so much that is unethical in some religions (we all know about the Catholic priest issue). And I’m not sure instilling a sense of GUILT in a person that stays with them all the time is especially helpful. And the tribal aspect of religion–all the people who were tortured or killed, wars being fought, over this religion or that. We needed to empower the individual. But, unfortunately, we threw out the baby with the bathwater. One problem is that as a society, seems to me, we lack a coherent and wide-spread set of values that we all can believe in and incorporate. I’ll check out the ethical society! Thanks again!

  3. Debbie Broderick

    Sounds like an interesting read. Yes … Values, principles, morals, ethics don’t seem to feature much in our society any longer. It’s limiting sometimes, to be principled when it’s not practiced by those around us. People who hold to their values ‘lose out’ in real life, practical situations (though not necessarily spiritually) because of this.

    Do we always have to veer so far off-kilter when we embark one a new way of being and doing things? Individualism, as argued, had so many good elements to it, and empowered so many people – as always how do we find a balance? Or how do we take stock and realize we need to readjust the balance …?

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