This is an interesting read from David Brooks, where he shares his views on life. He basically says life has two mountains. The 1st mountain has goals that culture endorses, such as traditional success, to be well thought off, and to experience personal happiness. It’s the normal stuff we desire: a nice home, a nice family, nice vacations, good food, etc.
Some people get to the top of this first mountain and find it suprisingly unsatisfying. Others get knocked off on their way up, by some failure or personal hardship. These people are down in the valley of bewilderment or suffering. Some of these people stop here, remaining unhappy. Others are made larger by the suffering and stage 2 small rebellions, against their ego ideal and against mainstream culture. Here, they find the second mountain, the more generous and satisfying phase of life.
In the first mountain, the ultimate appeal is to yourself. It’s about building up your ego, it’s about acquisition and elitism. In the second mountain, the ultimate appeal is to something outside yourself. It’s about shedding your ego and focusing on how you can contribute.
One thing Brooks says that particularly stood out to me is that a life of ease is not the pathway to growth and happiness. On the contrary, a life of ease is how you get stuck and confused in life.
Brooks then walks through some of the life stages that many of us experience. It starts off as a student when life is station to station. Then, from the most structured and supervised childhood in human history, you get spit out after graduation into the least structured young adulthood in human history. Many of these graduates pursue an aesthetic life - one full of experiences but without direction. These people often end up in the ditch, a place with too much freedom but no commitments to anything.
Some emerging adults are pragmatists. They typically went to competitive schools and have been high achievers. They flock to prestigious jobs in order to keep the existential anxiety about what to do with their lives carefully suppressed. Many of these people experience acedia: the quieting of passions, the living of a life that doesn’t arouse strong passions and therefore instills a sluggishness of the soul. These people, the insecure overachievers, never fully will anything and therefore, they are never fully satisfied. Whilst their brains are moving and their bank accounts are rising, their hearts and souls are never fully engaged.
As the Bible says, what does it profit a man to sell his soul if others are selling theirs and getting more for it?
He then touches on The Valley. Before people go into the valley: they first deny there’s anything wrong with their life, then they intensify efforts to follow the failing plan, then they try to treat themselves with a new thrill (affairs, drinking, drugs). Only when this fails, do they admit the need to change.
The valley is where you shed the old self so the new self can emerge. It’s a 3 step process, from suffering to wisdom to service. Being in the valley helps people to realize that the things they thought were most important - achievements, affirmation, intelligence - are actually less important, and the things that were undervalued - heart and soul - are actually the most important. It is often hardship that reveals the heart and soul.
The second mountain is about making commitments, tying oneself down, and giving yourself away. Brooks says we make 4 major commitments in our lives: to a vocation, to a spouse and family, to a philosophy / faith, and to a community. A thick life is defined by commitments and obligations. Commitments give us our identity, a sense of purpose. They allow us to move to a higher level of freedom: freedom from → freedom to. They build our moral characters.
The biggest of these commitments is to a spouse. Brooks says that who you marry is the most important decision in life, as it is the foundation of happiness or misery. Marriage is the sort of thing where it’s safer to go all in, and it’s dangerous to go in half-hearted. At the end, when done well, you see people enjoying the deepest steady joy you can find on this Earth.
Interestingly, Brooks notes that every relationship has a central disagreement. It can be moral or philosophical but the most troublesome ones are superficial but devastating. They are typically to do with punctuality, money, neatness, etc. Brooks also offers some very practical advice, warning readers to take a step back and make an appraisal when making a marriage decision. The decision should be looked at through a psychological, emotional, and moral lens.
Next, there is a fairly extensive section on faith and community, with Brooks spending quite a lot of time on religion. This section didn’t resonate with me as strongly but there was one part that stuck out. Brooks points out that in India, people experience everyday reality not just in the normal dimension but also in a spiritual dimension - almost like a vertical axis. Everything you do can take you up this axis towards purity, or down towards pollution.
Closely linked to faith is community. A healthy community is a thick system of relationships. In our modern world however, many roles that used to be done by the community have migrated to the marketplace or the state, i.e., for mental health you see a therapist, for physical health you go to a hospital, for education you go to school. Whilst these systems are effective in processing large numbers of people, they are depersonalizing, and lead to fragile individuals.
To build community, you must start with a commitment, and then an understanding that you have to fix your neighborhood as a whole, without just focusing on specific individuals. The next stage is to find a method for gathering. Next is to tell the common story, uniting people over a commonality.
To sum up: