New York Times columnist David Brooks won wide praise for his 2015 book The Road to Character, which celebrated the happiness found in personal achievement.
He now believes he was wrong and that “the rampant individualism of our current culture is a catastrophe.” He argues in his new book that true joy comes from service to others.
Brooks cites many examples of exemplary generosity. A woman in Houston started giving free haircuts to the homeless. A husband and wife in Washington, D.C., invited the hungry friend of their son to come for dinner. Soon more than 25 poor children, some homeless, would come for the Thursday evening meals. Some stayed overnight. Brooks was impressed and he began attending the meals, which include group sharing.
Brooks co-founded Weave: The Social Action Project at the Aspen Institute to generate support for generosity, believing that social isolation is a core problem “that underlies a lot of other social problems.”
The most compelling section of the book involves Brooks’ decades-long search for wisdom about religion and God. He grew up in a Jewish home, but he identified as an atheist for much of his adult life. He longed to know the truth about God, Christianity and Islam. He could find no evidence that believers are holier than atheists and agnostics.
Brooks cites the wisdom of several well-known saints who influenced him, while conceding he still has doubts about the existence of God and the truth of religion.
He is not alone. Even famous religion writers and clerics face periods of torment and doubt. Brooks mentions Mother Teresa, the Catholic nun who long wrestled with confusion about the existence of God.
“I realized,” Brooks says, “I was a religious person. I became aware of this supernatural presence, which is God, permeating the physical world.” Brooks was drawn to both Christianity and Islam. “If Jews don’t want me as a Jew, they’re going to have to kick me out.”
He is less persuasive when writing about marriage, saying that finding a marriage partner “is the most important decision you will ever make.” After 28 years of marriage, Brooks and his wife divorced and agreed not to talk about it in public. “I was lonely, humiliated, adrift,” he says. Later he married a former office assistant who is 23 years younger than him.
Brooks is a fine writer, although the text is too long and frequently repetitive. Better editing would have helped.
Under a subsection “The Loneliness Crisis,” Brooks says that one-third of Americans over age 45 are chronically lonely. The number of people who live alone and rarely speak to their neighbors is growing.
Brooks compares his mountain metaphor in two books. The Road to Character celebrated the ego, while The Second Mountain places the heart and soul at the center. He concludes by listing more than 60 beliefs that define a Second Mountain person, which might prompt readers to say “enough.”
This is a useful book for believers and non-believers alike. Brooks persuades us to think deeply and honor our doubts and questions about religion and God. “I’ve written this book, in part, to remind myself of the kind of life I want to live.”
He concludes, “I am a wandering Jew and a very confused Christian.”
The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, by David Brooks; Random House, 346 pp, $28
Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford, Conn., and a former editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.