My parents accented two reference points in life. They reinforced them in multiple ways as I grew up on our farm in southern Minnesota. More than 70 years later, I can report my progress — still climbing, stumbling and looking upward, inward and outward.
The first mountain centers on “self”. The drive is in-born: me, mine and I. It feels quite natural, rewarding and motivational. It yields a form of happiness that can be addictive, wanting more and more to satisfy an ever-active inner voice.
The second mountain centers on “others” — love and take care of siblings, family, neighbors, community, country and world. Its focus is on one’s surroundings and how we can contribute to the greater good of human society and the earth’s environment. It is less instinctive — more taught and caught — and yields a peaceful heart and lasting joy.
Climbing both mountains achieves life’s maximum rewards. Sounds reasonable — and easy. Not so. The two mountains often have different goals — often-conflicting.
The temptation from birth onward is to focus on the first mountain. Achieve in school, “win” competitive races, fulfill career drives, gain widespread recognition, accumulate wealth and acquire things. It fits comfortably with the “individuality creed” within our America culture.
In raw terms, this creed says every individual creates his or her own destiny, and the striving (personal effort) raises the tide for humankind at large through surging economic activity and growing prosperity. Missing those rewards is your own bad luck or poor motivation. Therefore, enjoy your successes, keep climbing, with little or — at best — modest empathy for needs, wants and unfulfilled dreams of others.
Teachings from the second mountain can be summed up in the golden rule, which is so much more than a platitude. It is to be a life principle — love others as you love yourself. To wit:
… Share toys with siblings; pass out-grown clothing to others; visit the sick and lonely; thank your gift-givers; listen more than talk; volunteer; tithe; don’t cheat; pay taxes; behold and be responsive to the desperate needs of others; be respectful to people whose color, dress, language, and religion are different than yours.
This second mountain is steep, rugged and very challenging. It, too, is an integral part of the American societal dream: hope, help, fairness, justice, peace and safety, which enables our democracy to thrive — avoiding disastrous turns to alternative forms of governance.
Columnist David Brooks writes and warns in his latest book, “The Second Mountain, The Quest for a Moral Life” (2019):
“…For six decades the worship of self has been the central preoccupation of our culture — molding the self, investing in the self, expressing the self ... We as people and a society have to find our second mountain. Capitalism, the meritocracy, and modern social science have normalized selfishness …they silently spread the message that giving, care, and love are just icing on the cake of society …
Self-preoccupation separates one another, divided and alienated … The rot we see in our politics is caused by a rot in our moral and cultural foundations The first-mountain culture has proven insufficient, as it always does … too little emphasis on the bonding parts of our consciousness, the heart and soul …”
Brooks hits the nail on its head! When self-love and the immediacy of its rewards dominates a person and society, listening and meaningful discourse wanes, cracks in society deepen, and a hunger grows for political stability by any means, including more authoritarian governance structures which promise big, but in the end deliver less. Of course, such structures inevitably fail from their own inherent weaknesses.
Elections in America are where our voices and votes determine our leadership at all levels of government. Good citizenship begins — not at the polling booth — but in the advance homework to determine whether a candidate does, or does not, draw from both mountains, and how he or she squares with our own life’s values and insights.
Thus, the future of our great American experiment — democracy — is not determined in Washington, D.C., or St. Paul, but in our own drawdowns from — and integration of — what these two mountains contribute to a wholesome life. Lots to think about and share with others in the months ahead.