The “Second Mountain”, if you climb it, could well take you to meaning. That’s the mountain, on its slopes, there are forms of contentment, anchored on a stable emotional connection (likely found in marriage), a sense of purpose of one’s life, and a form of belonging (likely to a community) - according to New York Times’s David Brooks’s new book.
This thinking is in line with a wave of philosophy that sees modernity as having deluded us into quests for “winning” which almost always pushes us into “loneliness and doubt”. In this thinking, modernity perpetuates our minds’ “wandering”: jumping from one fad to another, from one potential route to “success” to another. This wandering never leads to “joy”, a key word in Brooks’s view of the journeys on these mountains.
So, what is the first mountain? That’s the first half of your life: your 20s and 30s, and may be 40s, when you are climbing the mountain of attainment and moving along ‘the straightforward story’ upwards.
Why “straightforward”? because, in this view, during the climb of the first mountain, there is hardly any reflection. This means you go on and on, without thinking too much, without considering detours, or even long pauses. And this is why, in this view, you are moving towards a self-realisation of a self that you have neither defined nor scoped, but that was defined and scoped for you – externally.
Some might reduce all of that to expressions of that moment of contemplation, nostalgia, and anxiety: “middle age crisis”.
But the Second Mountain opens up for us other avenues of thinking that are worth exploring.
The first is self-definition. Irrespective of whether one sees this climbing of the second mountain as a return to humanity’s innate wisdom, or as the last cry of middle-aged men who sense that their understanding of life is withering away by the encroachment of new ideas (and ideals), certainly modernity, especially in the past thirty years or so, has imposed on the vast majority of people specific ways of defining success and progress and advancement.
Why “imposed” - because the vastness and power and encirclement of modern communications and media have made it very difficult for most people, in modern societies, to escape this torrent of particular definitions. This escape is much more difficult for young people, in their 20s and 30s, who are trying to build lives, which are inextricably linked to – if not governed by – the prevailing economic realities (themselves, inextricably linked to the overarching structures of power and government).
And so, a key avenue the second mountain shows us is: the need for defining, for ourselves, what is success, what are the values to live by, what are the measures to keep in mind when making decisions. And at the heart of all of that, what is ‘oneself’. (It is not surprising that amidst the current colossal socio-economic shifts the world is witnessing, “identity politics” is, by far, the fastest rising political force in almost all modern societies).
But being on the second mountain might push us to take this “self-definition” a step further. It encourages us to go the direction of “self-limitation”. Here, limitation does not mean less ambition, does not mean curbed ambition, and must not mean retraction of wants, desires, and aspirations, even for the big and grand and pleasurable. Rather, limitation here means accepting boundedness.
If the first mountain was about boundlessness – being free to explore, to roam, to experience, and to pursue the prizes desired by all - the second mountain is about settling down, in the different meanings of the term: into a family, into a community, some would say: into a faith, and likely into a set of values. In a way, the first mountain is the external road to self-definition - by following what the external world tells you how you ought to define yourself… you acquire a lot, you learn a lot… and then, having already been on that road, you come, at the end of that journey, to reject that “imposed” external definition. After you have come to that point, you explore the internal road to self-definition; you climb the second mountain where you begin to produce and receive your own definition of your own self.
Here, an interesting idea comes to the light. The boundlessness of climbing the first mountain could, at its core, be bounded by your accepting to play the game that others set for you. While the boundedness of the second mountain – of being in your own depth – might, if one digs deep into his/her core, offer the boundlessness of true freedom of thinking.
This is why, some old philosophies that also had rejected the prevailing modes of thinking of their times, thought of that second mountain as ways by which the person sculpts his/her character – ways of growth through which one takes ownership of his/her thinking. Here, retraction from the external becomes expansion of the internal.
For some, these are illusionary mountains. I remember a discussion with a wise Lebanese woman who, in an Autumn evening in an elegant home in the mountains overlooking Beirut, reflected on her life and gave a faint smile and summarised shifts and turns, decisions and dilemmas, in two words: “growing up”. But, I think, not all of us get to truly grow up, because growing up necessitates climbing (at least part of) that second mountain.