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Will making covenants repair our social fabric? A conversation with New York Times columnist David Brooks (+podcast)

David Brooks is the best-selling author of "The Road to Character." His latest work is "The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life."
David Brooks is the best-selling author of "The Road to Character." His latest work is "The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life."
Associated Press

Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.

Boyd Matheson: We live in a society that celebrates freedom and a selfie culture where self-interest and looking out for No. 1 is all that matters. America has taken rugged individualism to the extreme and in the process, the social fabric of the country has been rent. Hatred, fragmentation and disconnection in our society is not just a political problem. It stems from some moral and spiritual crisis. Could the path to repair possibly be found through making deeper commitments? Author of "The Second Mountain," David Brooks, joins us to discuss what can happen when we put commitment-making at the center of our lives on this episode of "Therefore, What?"

David Brooks is one of the nation's leading writers and commentators. He is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times and appears regularly on "PBS NewsHour" and "Meet the Press." He is the best-selling author of "The Road to Character" and joins us to discuss his latest work, "The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life." David, thanks so much for joining us today. Well, as you look at the genesis of of your "Second Mountain" project, maybe start with that. What was it that sparked this effort and this particular commentary?

David Brooks: Yeah, well, this is a book about moral renewal, and how societies and individuals turn themselves around. And this was both a personal story, I hit a little ditch about 2013. And I just wanted to know how I could lead a better life I was leading according to bad values. And I was not alone. A lot of people in society were leading by bad values. We were probably too individualistic when we should be more communal, we're to cognitive when we should be more relational and emotional. We steer our kids toward career success when we should be steering them toward moral joy. And so when you lead a life according to bad values, both as an individual and a society, you wind up in the ditch, you wind up isolated, alone, and we look around our country and see a country that's fragmented, where people are hostile to each other, depression rates rising, suicide rates rising, a lot of tribalism. And so I felt the personal need, but also given what I do, I felt the national need for us to find just a better set of values. So I went looking for it and I found people who live beautiful, joyful lives and I just wanted to learn from them.

BM: Let's start with the concept of the first mountain first, before we get to the title of the book, "The Second Mountain." What is it that we see on that first mountain? And what does that journey look like for most people?

DB: For most people, you know, you get out of school and you do what society wants you to do. You want to have a good career, you want to have a family, have kids, maybe, make some money, but you're sort of driven by a lot of the ego desires. There's a lot of time spent on reputation management. How am I doing? What do people think of me? There's a lot of time spent following the illusion that career success can make you happy. And we sort of know that's not true, but we live as if it is true. And then you spend a lot of time on the illusion I can make myself happy, that all I have to do is lose a little more weight, have one more career victory, master some self-help techniques and somehow I can make myself happy as if happiness is an individual thing you do on your own. And so we sort of follow the life that our society tells us to follow. And some of us get to the top and find it sort of unsatisfying. The career success didn't lead to the happiness we were promised. Or we fail, in which case we've lost our identity, or something else happens like the cancer scare, or you lose a child, something that drags you down to the valley and makes the first mountain, ambition, seem not that important.

BM: Yeah. So as you look at that, you describe that a lot of people who have been able to rise to the second mountain that we'll come to in a moment, but you say it often is either you get to the top of that first mountain of success and find out that it's really not all it's cracked up to be or it isn't really that satisfying, or you get one of those big curveballs in life or you get knocked sideways a little bit. Tell me more about that. The difference between those that kind of get broken and those that get broken open as you describe it?

DB: Yeah, well, I think we all have values. And some of them are caused by things like cancer or death of a loved one, some of them by career failure. Some of them we just feel adrift. So I once told college students that your life is defined by your moment of greatest adversity and how you react to it. And I had a student come up to me who said, I haven't really had much suffering in my life. Maybe I should find some. I was like, Don't worry, it'll find you. And I think those low moments do find us. And the question is, what do we do in those moments? Some people are broken by them. They get smaller and more afraid and they get resentful of the world. There's a good phrase, pain that is not transformed gets transmitted. So some people, something bad has happened in their life and instead of dealing with that pain, they just lash out at others, they transmit it. And you see a lot of tribalism in people who are broken. But some people get broken open.

There's a great theologian, Paul Tillich, from the 1950s, who said that what suffering does is it reminds you we're not the person we think we are. It carves beneath what we thought was the floor of the basement of our soul and it carves through that and reveals a cavity below. And it carves through that and reveals a cavity below. Meaning in the moments of suffering, we feel more deeply and we see into ourselves more deeply. And we can see down to the depths that each of us has in ourselves. You realize that only relational and spiritual food is going to fill those depths. And so suddenly you're vulnerable. Suddenly you're open to having more emotions. You're open to the kind of love that actually does transform a life.

BM: Yeah. You mentioned that one of the important, I guess, transition points or hinge points to get to that second mountain is that there has to be this period of solitude and self-reflection. Describe that a little bit more for us.

DB: Yeah, you know, in moments of suffering of course we throw ourselves on our friends, and we should. When I went through a bad period I felt very guilty throwing myself on my friends, I thought I was being a burden to them. But now when other friends throw themselves on me, I'm delighted because it gives me the chance to build our friendship, really. So there's a lot of time spent just being with others in those moments, but I do think there has to be a moment of solitude, there has to be a moment when, as the theologian Henri Nouwen says, you stand in the pain and figure out what it's trying to teach you. And that often involves going out into the wilderness. Going off somewhere in nature, maybe in the desert where time is slow, where there's no one to applaud your performance, no one cares about how great you are in nature. And you sort of find yourself. And I think when you get down to yourself out there, what you discover is what one writer called your unlimitable ability to care. Each of us has a tremendous ability to care for each other that is, beyond, it's mystical. I had a friend who, when her baby was born, her first daughter, she said, I found that I loved her more than evolution required. And I've always liked that phrase because of course we have our attachments. But some of them are so deep it's beyond what we need. It's sort of a magical ability to care for other people.

BM: I love that. I'm going to come back to that in just a second. But I want to just drill down one more level in terms of the solitude and self-reflection. Do you find that because of the world that we live in that we have this hyper-connectivity, where we're constantly responding to beeps and tweets and buzzes and all the other demands? Do you think it's becoming harder to actually be willing to go into the solitude or to even find those spaces on a daily basis?

DB: Yes. I find myself fraught every day because there's always more emails. That's, frankly, almost a moral and spiritual crisis that I feel like there are just bees buzzing around in my head all the time, I can't get away. And last year my wife and I went out to the hill country of West Texas where there was no cell phone coverage. And we spent four days in a place called "The Quiet House." And we lived the way we all used to live, like 10 years ago, where we didn't have that stuff. And it was just much more peaceful. But I think the key thing that has to happen in the wilderness is the ego has to be overthrown. You know, mostly we're thinking about ourselves. We're thinking about where we rank. And a lot of our email and social media conversation is how do I buff up the ego? And when you're on the wilderness, the ego has to be just overthrown and the desires of the ego, which are to be better than other people and have some status and have people recognize you, have to come to seem like small desires and not something worth devoting your life to. And you realize there are just bigger and better desires, the desire to live in deep relationships with other people, the desire to serve some transcendent good.

BM: And that really leads to that second mountain, that ability to care more deeply, to be more connected. So describe the second mountain to us.

DB: I think you know, we get better desires as we get older. I used to really love jello when I was a kid. I don't really like jello anymore. You know, I like a good croissant. I like a better dessert. So our desires improve as we are. We get higher desires. And when people are at the bottom and they realize what they really want from life, which is relationship, communion, community, they realize they're ready for a second larger life. And they think, oh that first mountain, that career thing, was not really my mountain. There's a second and much bigger mountain ahead of me and that's going to be my mountain. And it's at this moment that people rebel against the culture. They say I'm not going to be a consumer. I'm going to be one consumed. I'm not going to live for individualism. I'm going to live for relation. They stage a little rebellion. And then what they do is they find themselves something they can give their lives away to, they just give themselves away. And I saw a guy who was a banker who just found it unsatisfying. So he helped people come out of prison. And his eyes light up when he told me that. I have a friend, she's a farmer and she built a successful company. But her eyes light up when she talks about the health care she's now giving to her workers in the clinics and the preschools she's building for them. I met a woman in Ohio who had the worst valley you can imagine. Her husband took the lives of their kids and himself one weekend. She came home to discover this and she now has a free pharmacy. She teaches students, she helps moms who've been the victims of violence. And she says I do this now because I'm angry. I want to show that whatever he tried to do to me, he's not going to do it. I want to make a difference in the world. And it's all about gift with her. And I've met so many people who live that and they turn out to be the most joyful people you meet in a given week.

BM: Yeah, so let's talk about some of the pieces of that, or the core components that you described in the book, the four commitments. I love the way you have framed this difference between happiness and joy. That, you know, the first mountain is kind of the happiness mountain, but the second mountain you get rewarded with joy. And that while happiness is good, joy is actually better. So talk to me about those commitments that you cover in the book in terms of how that creates joy.

DB: Yeah, I do think if you're shooting for individual happiness you're probably not going to get it. But most of us make several of four big commitments. One of four, maybe all four of four. We commit to a spouse and family, we commit to a philosophy or faith, to a vocation and to a community. And the fulfillment of our lives depends on how well we commit to those things. And people on their second mountains have, as I said, given themselves away. Sometimes to a cause, sometimes to a family, sometimes to a god. They've given themselves to those things, they've made a promise to it without expecting in return. And they're all in. And so in their marriage they make it a maximal marriage. It's not just a contract marriage, where each side is trying to help the other do better in life. It's a complete self-gifting to the other.

There's a good line that pastor Tim Keller has, he says when you're about two years into your marriage you suddenly discover that the person you married, who you thought was perfect and wonderful in every way, is actually kind of selfish in a lot of ways. And exactly the moment that you're making this discovery about her, she's making it about you. And so you've got a choice, you can either have a truce marriage, in which you decide, well, we'll just ignore each other's selfishness, it's too unpleasant to deal with. Or you can have a covenantal marriage, and in that kind of marriage you realize that your partner's selfishness is not the core problem here, that your selfishness is the core problem here. It's the only selfishness you can really control. And if you dedicate yourself to getting rid of your selfishness, and she dedicates herself to getting rid of hers, you'll have a great marriage. And so it means just a passionate throwing yourself at each other in an act of giving. That's a covenantal marriage. And people who are on the second mountain are living for that kind of connection.

BM: You also mentioned the area of vocation and you actually talk about it in terms of that there are actually organizations that are either covenant or commitment driven. Tell us a little bit more about that.

DB: Yeah, I noticed this — I go to a lot of colleges and I visit a lot of companies. And in some the culture is thin. People go there because they want to get a degree or they just want to earn a salary. It's sort of a contract, they made a contract — I'll do my work, you pay me a salary. But then there are some colleges and some organizations where it's thick, and when it's thick there's a sheer sense of the purpose of the organization. They're serving some larger goal. There's a lot of time spent, sometimes after meals and maybe on retreats where you see each other, you know, after the makeup's been taken off and there's a lot of — there's often music, there's a source of struggle, there's safety so every person feels they can say what they want and be respected and seen. There's a sense of joy, the place is just joyful. And when you see one of these organizations, you see something that doesn't just serve, you know, doesn't just pay people, it transforms their identity.

So I'm sure we've all met people who were Marines. You always know a Marine, they've been transformed by the Marine Corps, or a Morehouse man. And I was fortunate enough to go to a college called the University of Chicago. And when I went there, our professors gave us these books with a fervor because they believed the key to a good life was in these books for those who study it and read it well. And I feel more beholden to my college now than I did when I graduated 25 or 30 years ago, just because I realized I was in a thick organization that held up — here's a way to lead a noble life. And they really aroused aspirations in me that have never gone away, and my natural tendency to be shallow has been fought off a little because it's hard to be shallow when you've tasted what they gave us.

BM: I want to jump to the next commitment, which is around philosophy or faith. And this is probably one that people generally associate with commitments or covenants, is that philosophy or faith, but you really extend that not just from the individual, but really out into the community as well.

DB: Yeah, well, I think we're all looking for ways to be deepened. And I would say, in my experience, the world has gotten deeper as I've gotten older. There's a friend, Christian Wiman, who says that my former attitudes were not wide enough to cover reality as I experienced it. That is, there are moments of transcendent moments. There are moments when you realize the world is enchanted. And I think when you're on your second mountain, when you've knocked the ego out of the way, you're more willing to surrender to those feelings. And in my experience religious faith isn't always like, God told me to have a cheeseburger today. It's not always God's voice in my head every single day. But it's a visitation of certain moments, and then you try to stay faithful to those moments. And I do think having that spiritual awareness is both a humbling — it makes you surrender and smaller to be serving something like that. But it also gives you much higher goals. Because your standards have been elevated to the heart of God, which is a high state.

BM: Yeah, exactly. And a lot of that leads to that fourth committment, which is around community.

DB: Yeah, I've had the great fortune in the last year to be around what I call weavers. There's a lot of social isolation in this country. But there are a lot of people who are building community and building relationships. And I created something at the Aspen Institute to try to learn from their example and build on their effect. And so we go around the country when we land in a town and we look for the weavers. We just go to the town and say who's trusted here? And wherever you go, could be a small town, big city, there's hundreds of people who get mentioned and we meet them. And some of them have started a program to help young men have father figures in their lives, a guy in Ohio who founded a boxing gym. He wasn't really teaching boxing, he was teaching young men how to be men in a gentle way. A woman in Baltimore who surrounds each of the 450 lowest performing kids in the schools there with these vast networks of volunteers who are really serving as a second family for the kids, driving them to school, taking them lunch, being there through the ups and downs. And so these are people who have built community, and I think it's transformative to be around them, because they believe in deep mutuality, that we're all broken, we're all equal, we're all walking in this together. And they're really great at relationships. You know, I don't know if they could get into Harvard if it's measured by SAT scores. But if Harvard measured by how good are you at relationships, these people could all get into Harvard. They just are phenomenal at making you feel a sense of belonging with them.

BM: Yeah. So let's play that out in terms of, you know, where we are as a country. We seem to be more tribal, we tend to fly off the handle, often chasing ego or our own self-interest or the interests of our tribe. How do we start that conversation with the country in terms of how do we start to change some of these weaker values for better?

DB: Yeah, I think it is very parallel to the individual process we just walked through. I think first we have to just give up a lot of the attitudes about ego and tribal, that I want to be better than you, you're worse than me. You disagree with me, you're worse, you're a monster. And the way to do that is to taste what the weavers have to offer. You know, the woman — I mentioned this organization which builds the volunteers around the kids, so that's in Baltimore, it's called Thread. And there was a woman who just served on the board, a financier who was a successful businesswoman. And when she was a kid her dad beat her. She's Asian-American, and she said I was glad I had thick, black hair, because the teachers couldn't see the welts on my head from where I got punched. And she had this miserable childhood, and she attempted suicide and failed and it was a rough childhood. She never told her husband about this. She never told her kids. But Thread, the board she sits on, has an ethos of what they call showing all the way up. That you're going to be vulnerable, we're going to be vulnerable with each other, we're going to call a thing a thing. And so that's honesty, and that's vulnerability, that's relationship. That's attachment. And being on the Thread board changed her. So she told the Thread board about her childhood. Then she told her husband and then she told her kids. And so she had been changed by the process of being around people who are really good at community. And I'm convinced we can all go through that kind of experience and, you know, learn to neighbor a little better with the people in her immediate vicinity.

BM: Yeah. And part of that requires that courageous vulnerability, that showing all the way up as you said, because I think that often leads us to get comfortable with the uncomfortable conversations. Whether that's around addiction or homelessness or whatever issue in the community. How do we foster that? Again, that's not something you're going to be taught in Harvard Business School, or any other school most likely. How do we change that?

DB: Right, it is a skill. Kindness is a skill. It's knowing how to listen. I have a friend who's just a really good listener. When I go to him with a problem he asks eight questions and then I have a tempo in my head. Oh, he'll probably now give me advice. But then he asks another eight questions. So he just asks that extra round of questions. And that's a skill of listening, just probing even a little deeper. And then there's the skill of accepting and then frankly, the skill of talking across difference. I think we should all have one relationship in our lives that is with people completely unlike ourselves, who we see once a week or once a month. I've found that's tremendously opened me up. One of the things in my own personal story, I was down in the dumps, and I got invited to a home of a couple who had basically taken in a bunch of kids in D.C., who didn't have places to stay. And when I went there the first time, this was about six years ago, I introduced myself to one of the kids. He's like 17, 18. And I reached out my hand and he says, we really don't shake hands here. We just hug here. And I'm not the huggiest guy on the face of the earth, but I've been hugging at that dinner table every Thursday for the last six years, just because it's become a community for me. And what those kids do is they don't tolerate social distance. They want you to be there emotionally for them, and they're there emotionally for you. And so they just teach you a different way of relating and it's really contagious. That way you see a person who's good at that, who's willing to be vulnerable, and willing just be open-hearted, it educates everybody around them.

BM: Love that. So as you've gone through this journey, this second mountain kind of journey, what's been the most surprising thing to you? What did you learn about yourself? What did you most learn about our society?

DB: You know that some people say you don't change after a certain age and I'm in my 50s. And the last six years have been a period of — external I look the same. I've got the same job. If people looked at me from the outside, it would be the same. But internally I'm very different. There's a radio show called "On Being," which I've been on twice, five years apart. And the second time I was on, the hostess, Krista Tippett, pulled me aside after the show. And she said, I've never seen anybody change so much. And that's an adventure to think that you can change. If I changed a lot over the last six years, maybe there will be a lot over the next six. And just the awareness that life is more enchanted than we ever imagined when we're on the first mountain. You become aware of levels of attachment that you couldn't have imagined, and levels of joy that — I say in the book that when we're competing for career success, it's like we're competing around a little crowded sunlamp. But if we just stepped outside we could be in the real sunshine. And somehow we don't step outside because we're not aware how much joy there is an offer.

BM: That's fantastic. You know, I once did a really crazy early morning climb of a mountain in Malaysia, just because I love to see that sun coming up when you're on top of a mountain. It's always a great thing. I'm not a camper. Anything below a Marriott's technically camping at my house. But I made the effort, went up early in the morning, I had this extra time in Malaysia and it was just amazing. I could see the whole island and then just countless shades of blue and green water and the sun coming up across the ocean. And it was ironic, I got back to my hotel room and a lot of my colleagues kind of chided me for you know getting up in the darkness to go climb the mountain. But when I got back to my room that night, they had put a little thing on my pillow with the chocolate, which is how you also know you're not camping. If you have a chocolate on your pillow, you're not camping. But it was this great quote that says "Why climb?" and then it says, "what is above knows what is below. What is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One may descend and see no longer, but one has seen. There's an art to conducting oneself in the lower regions of life, by the memory of what you saw higher up." And I kept having that go through my head as I was going through your book and looking at these powerful principles, that, you know, we do have these ups and downs, and we do have these different visions, or we get to the top of the mountain and realize that this was really the foothills. And that there is that second mountain.

What have you learned in terms of when we do get knocked back down into the valley that we can take as kind of that memory of the view we saw higher up?

DB: I just think that basically, it's a gracious world. And I do think, at the heart of things, there's just so much spiritual depth to life, and there's a great writer, Annie Dillard, who a lot of her books are just describing nature and the weirdness of nature and the richness of nature. Tree sap traveling 150 miles an hour up a tree trunk, things we don't even think about. And there's just so much there. And then there's so much inside each of us. I had a weird moment five years ago, I guess it was. I was in New York, I was in Penn Station. And it's like one of the most soul-crushing places you could be. It's an ugly place. You're surrounded by thousands of people who are all like ants in little lines, but suddenly I just had an awareness that each of them had a soul and they all had some infinite depths and that there was some piece of them that has no weight, size, color or shape. But it gives them infinite value and dignity. And it was an important moment for me because you know, I write about people. And I don't want to spend my life as a journalist writing about sacks of genes. I want to write about things that are dignified creatures and I just became aware of this sensation that all these people are infinitely dignified. And all these people, all human beings, have this yearning for righteousness, yearning to lead good, meaningful lives. And it gives them so many layers. Each person has so many layers. I think there's a C.S. Lewis line somewhere, that if we never met a human being and suddenly you met one for the first time, you'd have the urge to worship this thing. Because all human beings are so deep and so complicated, each individual one. And so you just become aware of the richness of life. And you try to see people in their fulness.

BM: Yeah. Well, we've come to that point in the program, David, that is the "Therefore, What?" moment. So people who've been listening to this podcast for the last 25 minutes. What's the "Therefore, What?" What's the takeaway? What do you hope people think different? What do you hope they do different as a result of your book and listening to this conversation today?

DB: Well, the first thing is to stop thinking individualisticly. Let's stop seeing ourselves as individual choosers, who have a solitary journey through life. Let's put relationships first, see ourselves emerging out of relationship, devoting to relationship. Life is a qualitative endeavor. It's about how thick are our relationships, not how many. And so devoting to picking up those four commitments, writing them down on a piece of paper, and say, How thick is my relationship to my vocation? How thick is my relationship with my family, to my philosophy or faith, to the neighbors right around me? And if everybody sat down with those four things and evaluated, what's the quality here? What's the thickness here? I think you'd see areas for growth, areas for satisfaction. But intentionally it would lead to, I think, a thicker life and also just a richer community and our nation would not be as disconnected as it is right now.

BM: Fantastic. David Brooks, the book is "The Second Mountain: The Quest For a Moral Life." Thanks so much for joining us today. Remember after the story is told, after the principle is presented, after the discussion and debate had been had, the question for all of us is, "Therefore, What?" Don't miss an episode, subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast or wherever you're listening today and be sure to rate this episode and leave us a review. Follow us on tw and subscribe to our newsletter. This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News. Thanks for engaging with us on "Therefore, What?"

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