Regional Pastors Bookshelf: "The Second Mountain" Book Review

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Pastors preside over transitions in peoples’ lives. Though “preside” is too presumptuous. More accurately, pastors have a front row seat on the transitions in peoples’ lives; to preside would suggest that somehow we have some form of control. 

We watch as members are “downsized” from a sturdy job and now must transition into a new kind of career. Someday, that transition might make sense.  However, as they pass through, it involves a substantial amount of pain and discomfort. We watch as teenagers transition from living at home to going to college. That move is a transition from dependence to relative independence. We know that such transitions change the identity of the child from offspring to offsprung. Such transitions require time, adjustments, and negotiation. 

Parents transition too as their identity and relationships change as well. They go from relating to their church and to one another through the lives and lens of their children to now needing to relate to each other and their church community as empty-nesters. Those who once identified themselves as parents are once again a couple; sometimes that recovery is blissful and for others, it is bumpy. 

It is no wonder why marriages and church membership go through a season of transition in the face of other changes in the air. Such seasons are accompanied by stress, worry, anxiety, and freedom. In the words of Heifetz and Linskey, “People don’t fear change, they fear loss.” 

In spite of the freedom and newness that is sometimes offered in the face of transitions, such change is nearly always surrounded by discomfort, disequilibrium, and loss. For most of us, the joy of resurrection only follows a Friday.   

Similarly, regional pastors “preside” over transitions in the lives of pastors and congregations in their care. If this is a script that is familiar to you personally, or is one that you see at work in the lives of those you care about, you may want to pick up a copy of David Brooks’ The Second MountainThe Second Mountain is one part primer and one part memoir on the fruit stemming from Brooks’ own season of transition.

Brooks “had me at hello” five years ago when he wrote his book The Road to Character. In it, he observed his own long journey to realizing that there are two kinds of virtues in the world. He observed that there are "resume" virtues and virtues spoken in a eulogy. 

Resume virtues are about our accomplishments, qualifications, awards, degrees, promotions, and certifications. These important virtues are about our achievements that we have earned along the way. Eulogy virtues are different. Eulogy virtues are spoken when we’ve stopped talking. When eulogies are spoken, achievements take a back seat to character. Eulogy virtues are tied to stories and are leavened with courage, compassion, tenderness, humility, and the vulnerability that others see as bravery. 

Brooks observes two things: one, those who love you-most don’t generally remember or care that much about your resume virtues. Two, he has spent most of his life pursuing resume virtues. While he does not at all disparage resume virtues and finds them inherent to life, for him, these have now become secondary in importance—even though this was once his metric for success. 

The Second Mountain is about his own five year journey since writing The Road to Character. For Brooks, the “first mountain” is about success and the “second mountain” is about meaning and purpose—something that can only be found in the context of community, commitment, and vocation. The Second Mountain is his self-corrective for his first book when he believed that virtue is something that each person pursued on their own. Brooks’ pursuit of the first mountain led to personal crisis and multiple transitions in his personal and professional life.

During his period of painful transformation, Brooks realized that life is not about transactions and contracts, but about relationships, connections, and commitment. These are not things one can pursue on their own. 

While Brooks does not go into great detail about the loss of his marriage, key friendships, or the myths of fulfillment that he once pursued, he is crystal clear about where the crisis of the last five years has brought him. Brooks has lost much but has also discovered his soul. Having climbed the first mountain of success (and getting higher than he ever imagined) and learning that it was not satisfying.

The second mountain that he is learning to climb is one that he is not climbing alone, but with others. Virtue is not something you pursue alone—that is his self-corrective. The second mountain is about relationships, community, service, and commitment. These, he writes, are the things that make for happiness and fulfillment and bless the world around us. 

Having grown up both Jewish and Episcopalian, he describes himself as a “wandering Jew and a confused Christian.” Thoughtful readers however, may not be convinced that Brooks is confused. Something has happened to him that has allowed him to have immense clarity. Whatever that is has come with a great price but also great reward. The pursuit of the first mountain did not get him where he wanted or needed to be. Now, he is pursuing the second mountain and urges readers to do the same. As he writes, I don’t hear regret, I hear gratitude.

How do these things relate to the work of Regional Pastors? We walk with people on a journey while we are walking our own. We have a front row seat on pastors and congregations who are in a discovery process about who they are and whom they are being called to become. This process is both developmental and transitional and the learning process is anything but easy.

If you are looking for a good book around which to gather local clergy to have good conversation, The Second Mountain is an approachable and compelling read. As I ponder a recent July lectionary text on Mary and Martha, I am reminded of all of the ways in which the call to be faithful is often rooted in relationships, connection, conversation and waiting—and less about doing, producing, and measuring. The difference is as significant as the first and second mountain—and the difference is noteworthy.  

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You made me want to read this book! Added to my list. Thanks! 

Thanks, Mark.  I also enjoyed "The Road to Character," so reading your review of Brooks' next book has captured my interest.