Edition 31 October 2019, by Benjamin B. Roberts
The Quest for a Moral Life (New York: Random House, 2019)
David Brooks’ latest book, The Second Mountain. A Quest for a Moral Life (April 2019) is changing the way we think about getting older. And in a good way. The New York Times columnist explores contemporary life cycles, that are drastically different from the past. In the Middle Ages and up until the late nineteenth century, society’s notion about life cycles was dominate by a triangular-shaped ladder of life, in 10-year stages. The crest of the ladder was a 50-year old man or woman, standing tall and erect. The figures on the ladder then gradually declined to a bent-over 90-year old, leaning on a cane. In The Second Mountain, Brooks has modernized the stages of life with a simple two-mountain version. The first stage – or mountain – is career- and society-driven. In the first mountain we want to get to the top of our career, find the prettiest or most handsome partner, aspire to have the biggest house, aim to please our parents and live up to societal expectations. When most people reach the top of their first mountain, they usually are disappointed, and start asking important existentialistic questions: “Is this it?”, “Am I really happy?”
According to Brooks, these questions might seem obvious, but they are not. Most people are too busy and do not have time to consider them during the journey up the first mountain. The long trek up is usually hard and difficult. But then something happens. After reaching the top of the first mountain, they are often confronted with marital problems, careers that do not pan out, or health issues. That is when most people fall from their mountain and have to climb a second mountain. But before doing so they ask, “What can I leave behind in the world, besides a large house and full bank account?” They start recreating their lives with purpose, based on the four life-defining commitments: choosing a partner and family, a vocation, a philosophy or faith, and a community. When a life based on purpose becomes our main motive, fulfilling these four commitments is easier, especially when people ask the question, “How can I leave the world a better place?” Brooks argues that when people find purpose in life, they experience more joy and fulfillment, and feel rewarded. The climb up the second mountain is much faster and easier, because it is morality-driven. In that regard, getting older looks more promising.