All the notes were taken directly from the source mentioned.
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There are temporary highs we all get after we win some victory, and then there is also this other kind of permanent joy that animates people who are not obsessed with themselves but have given themselves away.
Every once in a while, I meet a person who radiates joy. These are people who seem to glow with an inner light. They are kind, tranquil, delighted by small pleasures, and grateful for the large ones.
The goals on that first mountain are the normal goals that our culture endorses to be a success, to be well thought of, to get invited into the right social circles, and to experience personal happiness.
These seasons of suffering have a way of exposing the deepest parts of ourselves and reminding us that we’re not the people we thought we were.
For still others, something unexpected happens that knocks them crossways: the death of a child, a cancer scare, a struggle with addiction, some life-altering tragedy that was not part of the original plan.
These seasons of suffering have a way of exposing the deepest parts of ourselves and reminding us that we’re not the people we thought we were. People in the valley have been broken open. They have been reminded that they are not just the parts of themselves that they put on display. There is another layer to them they have been neglecting, a substrate where the dark wounds, and most powerful yearnings live.
They see deeper into themselves and realize that down in the substrate, flowing from all the tender places, there is a fundamental ability to care, a yearning to transcend the self and care for others. And when they have encountered this yearning, they are ready to become a whole person. They see familiar things with new eyes. They are finally able to love their neighbor as themselves, not as a slogan but a practical reality. Their life is defined by how they react to their moment of greatest adversity.
They realize the desires of the ego are never going to satisfy the deep regions they have discovered in themselves.
The people who are made larger by suffering go on to stage two small rebellions. First, they rebel against their ego ideal.
Second, they rebel against the mainstream culture.
Suddenly they are not interested in what other people tell them to want. They want to want the things that are truly worth wanting. They elevate their desires. The world tells them to be a good consumer, but they want to be the one consumed by a moral cause. The world tells them to want independence, but they want interdependence to be enmeshed in a web of warm relationships. The world tells them to want individual freedom, but they want intimacy, responsibility, and commitment. The world wants them to climb the ladder and pursue success, but they want to be a person for others. The magazines on the magazine rack want them to ask: What can I do to make myself happy? but they glimpse something bigger than personal happiness.
That’s the crucial way to tell whether you are on your first or second mountain. Where is your ultimate appeal? To self, or to something outside of self?
If the first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self, the second mountain is about shedding the ego and losing the self. If the first mountain is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contribution. If the first mountain is elitist moving up the second mountain is egalitarian planting yourself amid those who need, and walking arm in arm with them.
You are conquered by your second mountain. You surrender to some summons, and you do everything necessary to answer the call and address the problem or injustice that is in front of you. On the first mountain you tend to be ambitious, strategic, and independent. On the second mountain you tend to be relational, intimate, and relentless.
The second-mountain people aren’t averse to the pleasures of the world.
They have surpassed these pleasures in pursuit of moral joy, a feeling that they have aligned their life toward some ultimate good. If they have to choose, they choose joy.
C. S. Lewis put it, The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.
Everybody says you should serve a cause larger than yourself, but nobody tells you how.
(My wife, for example, seems to have climbed her second mountain first. Unlike most of us, she was raised in an environment that emphasized moral commitment, not individual success.)
People on the first mountain have lives that are mobile and lightly attached. People on the second mountain are deeply rooted and deeply committed. The second-mountain life is a committed life. When I’m describing how second-mountain people live, what I’m really describing is how these people made maximal commitments to others and how they live them out in fervent, all-in ways. These people are not keeping their options open. They are planted. People on the second mountain have made strong commitments to one or all of these four things: a vocation, a spouse and a family, a philosophy or faith and a community.
We’ll fall short because we’re ordinary human beings, and we’re still going to be our normal self-centered selves more than we care to admit. But it is still important to set a high standard. It is still important to be inspired by the examples of others and to remember that a life of deep commitments is possible. When we fall short, it will be because of our own limitations, not because we had an inadequate ideal.
The first- and second-mountain distinction might sound a little like the virtues versus eulogy virtues distinction I made in my last book, The Road to Character.
I still believed that character is something you build mostly on your own. You identify your core sin and then, mustering all your willpower, you make yourself strong in your weakest places.
I now think good character is a by-product of giving yourself away.
The emphasis on self individual success, self-fulfillment, individual freedom, self-actualization is a catastrophe.
The whole cultural paradigm has to shift from the mindset of hyper-individualism to the relational mindset of the second mountain.
We try to teach what it is that we really need to learn.
Productivity over relationship.
My playlists were all Irish heartbreak songs by Sinead O’Connor and Snow Patrol.
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us, Kafka wrote.
When it comes to what we writers do, I like to apply an observation by D. T. Niles: We are like beggars who try to show other beggars where we found bread.
I take the curriculum of other people’s knowledge and I pass it along.
Capitalism, the meritocracy, and modern social science have normalized selfishness; they have made it seem that the only human motives that are real are the self-interested ones the desire for money, status, and power. They silently spread the message that giving, care, and love are just icing on the cake of society.
We have become too cognitive when we should be more emotional; too utilitarian when we should be using a moral lens; too individualistic when we should be more communal.
When I meet people leading lives of deep commitment, this fact hits me: Joy is real.
Joy tends to involve some transcendence of self. It’s when the skin barrier between you and some other person or entity fades away and you feel fused together.
Happiness is what we aim for on the first mountain. Joy is a by-product of living on the second mountain.
The more you are living a committed life well, the more joy will be your steady state, the frame of mind you carry around with you and shine on others.
First, there is physical joy. There are moments when you are doing some physical activity, often in rhythm with other people, when you experience flow.
The next layer of joy is collective effervescence, celebratory dance.
The third layer of joy is what you might call emotional joy.
The fourth layer of joy is spiritual joy.
The fifth layer of joy is transcendent joy, feeling at one with nature, the universe, or God.
Ralph Waldo Emerson built a philosophy off such moments of transcendence. Standing on the bare ground my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space all mean egotism vanishes. I become the transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me.
Here I want to shift now to the highest layer of joy, which I’ll call moral joy.
The skeptics could say that all those other kinds of passing joy are just brain chemicals in some weird formation that happened to have kicked in to produce odd sensations.
As Haidt notes, powerful moments of moral elevation seem to push a mental reset button, wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and moral inspiration.
The interesting thing about your personality, your essence, is that it is not more or less permanent like your leg bone. Your essence is changeable, like your mind. Every action you take, every thought you have, changes you, even if just a little, making you a little more elevated or a little more degraded. If you do a series of good deeds, the habit of other-centeredness becomes gradually engraved into your life. It becomes easier to do good deeds down the line. If you lie or behave callously or cruelly toward someone, your personality degrades, and it is easier for you to do something even worse later on.
if you closely look at joyful people, you notice that very often the people who have the most incandescent souls have taken on the heaviest burdens.
Permanent moral joy seems to emerge when desire is turned outward for others.
You have to lose yourself to find yourself, give yourself away to get everything back.
I want to emphasize who leads change in these moments, because it is relevant to the moment we find ourselves in today. It’s not politicians who lead this kind of change. Instead it’s moral activists and cultural pioneers.
As Joseph Campbell put it in an interview with Bill Moyers, there are two types of deed. There is the physical deed: the hero who performs an act of bravery in war and saves a village. But there is also the spiritual hero, who has found a new and better way of experiencing spiritual life, and then comes back and communicates it to everyone else.
You might summarize it with the phrase I’m Free to Be Myself. This individualistic ethos,
The idea was to be liberated from dogma, political oppression, social prejudice, and group conformity.
This movement had a right-wing variant the individual should be economically unregulated and it had a left-wing variant each person’s individually chosen lifestyle should be socially unregulated. But it was all about individual emancipation all the way down.
I don’t want to spend too much time describing this culture of individualism, authenticity, autonomy, and isolation because it has been described so masterfully by others: Philip Rieff in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism, Gail Sheehy in Passages, Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue, Tom Wolfe in The ˜Me’ Decade, Erica Jong in Fear of Flying, Charles Taylor in The Ethics of Authenticity, Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart, and Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone.
I just want to emphasize that the march toward freedom produced many great outcomes. The individualistic culture that emerged in the sixties broke through many of the chains that held down women and oppressed minorities. It loosened the bonds of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. We could not have had Silicon Valley or the whole information age economy without the rebel individualism and bursts of creativity that were unleashed by this culture. It was an absolutely necessary cultural revolution.
The buffered self. The autonomous individual is the fundamental unit of society. A community is a collection of individuals who are making their own choices about how to live.
Each individual has the right to live in any way he or she pleases as long as they don’t interfere with other people’s rights to live as they please. The ideal society is one in which people live unencumbered but together, each doing their own thing.
The God within. The goal of life is to climb Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and achieve self-actualization and self-fulfillment. As you make your own personal journey, you learn to better express your own unique self. You learn to get in touch with yourself, find yourself, and live in a way that is authentic to who you really are. The ultimate source of authority is found inside, in listening to the authentic voice of the Hidden Oracle within, in staying true to your feelings and by not conforming to the standards of the corrupt society outside.
The privatization of meaning. It’s a mistake to simply accept the received ideas of the world around you. You have to come up with your own values, your own worldview.
It’s not the job of schools or neighborhoods or even parents to create a shared moral order. It’s something you do on your own, and who are you to judge if another person’s moral order is better or worse than any others?
The dream of total freedom. In other cultures, people are formed by and flourish within institutions that precede individual choice family, ethnic heritage, faith, nation. But these are precisely the sorts of institutions that the culture of individualism eats away at, because they are unchosen and therefore seen as not quite legitimate.
The centrality of accomplishment.
They are measured by what they have individually achieved. Status, admiration, and being loved follow personal achievement. Selfishness is accepted, because taking care of and promoting the self is the prime mission. It’s okay to be self-oriented because in a properly structured society, private selfishness can be harnessed to produce public goods, such as economic growth.
Eighty percent said their parents cared more about achievements individual success over relational bonds.
Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe.
As time went by, settlers from Europe began defecting to live with the natives. No natives defected to live with the colonials. This bothered the Europeans. They had, they assumed, the superior civilization, and yet people were voting with their feet to live in the other way. The colonials occasionally persuaded natives to come with them, and taught them English, but very quickly the natives returned home. During the wars with the Indians, many European settlers were taken prisoner and held within Indian tribes. They had plenty of chances to escape and return, but did not. When Europeans came to rescue them, they fled into the woods to hide from their rescuers. The difference was that people in Indian villages had a communal culture and close attachments. They lived in a spiritual culture that saw all creation as a single unity. The Europeans had an individualistic culture and were more separable. When actually given the choice, a lot of people preferred community over self. The story made me think that it’s possible for a whole society to get itself into a place where it’s fundamentally misordered.
The difference was that people in Indian villages had a communal culture and close attachments. They lived in a spiritual culture that saw all creation as a single unity. The Europeans had an individualistic culture and were more separable.
Every society has a way of transmitting its values to the young. Some societies do it through religious festivals or military parades. One of the ways we do it is through a secular sermon called the commencement address.
Many young people are graduating into limbo. Floating and plagued by uncertainty, they want to know what specifically they should do with their lives. So we hand them the great empty box of freedom! The purpose of life is to be free. Freedom leads to happiness! We’re not going to impose anything on you or tell you what to do. We give you your liberated self to explore. Enjoy your freedom! The students in the audience put down that empty box because they are drowning in freedom. What they’re looking for is direction.
So we hand them another big box of nothing the big box of possibility! Your future is limitless! You can do anything you set your mind to! The journey is the destination! Take risks! Be audacious! Dream big!
So we hand them the empty box of authenticity: Look inside yourself! Find your true inner passion. You are amazing! Awaken the giant within! Live according to your own true way! You do you! This is useless, too. The you we tell them to consult for life’s answers is the very thing that hasn’t yet formed. So they put down that empty box and ask, What can I devote myself to? What cause will inspire me and give meaning and direction to my life?
At this point we hand them the emptiest box of all the box of autonomy. You are on your own, we tell them. It’s up to you to define your own values. No one else can tell you what’s right or wrong for you. Your truth is to be found in your own way through your own story that you tell about yourself. Do what you love!
When you’re a student, life is station to station. There’s always the next assignment, the next test, the next admissions application to structure a student’s schedule and energies. Social life has its dramas, but at least it’s laid out right there in front of you in the dining hall and the dorm.
The person on the other side of the desk at every job interview has that distant Kanye attitude there’s a million of you; there’s only one of me.
The average American has seven jobs over the course of their twenties. A third of recent college graduates are unemployed, underemployed, or making less than $30,000 a year at any given moment. Half feel they have no plan for their life, and nearly half of people in their twenties have had no sexual partner in the last year. These are peak years for alcoholism and drug addiction. People in this life stage move every three years. Forty percent move back in with their parents at least once. They are much less likely to attend religious services or join a political party.
People in their odyssey years tend to be dementedly optimistic about the long-term future. Ninety-six percent of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds agree with the statement I am very sure that someday I will get to where I want to be in life. But the present is marked by wandering, loneliness, detachment, doubt, underemployment, heartbreaks, and bad bosses, while their parents go slowly insane.
THE AESTHETIC LIFE Some people graduate from college with the mindset of daring adventurers. This is the time for fun before real life settles in.
If you do something completely crazy you will know forever after that you can handle a certain amount of craziness, and your approach to life for all the decades hence will be more courageous.
At every job interview and dinner party for the next three decades, somebody will want to ask you what it was like teaching English in Mongolia, and that will distinguish you from everybody else.
This is an excellent way to begin your twenties. The problem with this kind of life only becomes evident a few years down the road if you haven’t settled down into one thing.
If you say yes to everything year after year, you end up leading what Kierkegaard lamented as an aesthetic style of life. The person leading the aesthetic life is leading his life as if it were a piece of art, judging it by aesthetic criteria is it interesting or dull, pretty or ugly, pleasurable or painful?
Your Instagram feed will be amazing, and everybody will think you’re the coolest person ever. You tell yourself that relationships really matter to you scheduling drinks, having lunch but after you’ve had twenty social encounters in a week you forget what all those encounters are supposed to build to. You have thousands of conversations and remember none.
The problem is that the person in the aesthetic phase sees life as possibilities to be experienced and not projects to be fulfilled or ideals to be lived out. He will hover above everything but never land. In the aesthetic way of life, each individual day is fun, but it doesn’t seem to add up to anything.
Life will be a series of temporary moments, not an accumulating flow of accomplishment. You will lay waste to your powers, scattering them in all directions. You will be plagued by a fear of missing out. Your possibilities are endless, but your decision-making landscape is hopelessly flat.
As Annie Dillard put it, how you spend your days is how you spend your life. If you spend your days merely consuming random experiences, you will begin to feel like a scattered consumer. If you want to sample something from every aisle in the grocery store of life, you turn yourself into a chooser, the sort of self-obsessed person who is always thinking about himself and his choices and is eventually paralyzed by self-consciousness.
If you aren’t saying a permanent no to anything, giving anything up, then you probably aren’t diving into anything fully. A life of commitment means saying a thousand noes for the sake of a few precious yeses.
David Foster Wallace’s epic novel Infinite Jest.
It turns out that freedom isn’t an ocean you want to spend your life in. Freedom is a river you want to get across so you can plant yourself on the other side and fully commit to something.
If one group of young people approach adulthood as an aesthetic experience, another group tries to treat adulthood as much as possible like a continuation of school.
This group of emerging adults are pragmatists. They are good at solving problems. The problem for a college junior and senior is anticipated ambiguity. Graduation is approaching, and you don’t know what comes next. The pragmatists solve this problem by flocking to companies and such that can tell them, even as juniors in college, what they will be doing for at least a few years hence.
When you choose to work at a certain company, you are turning yourself into the sort of person who works in that company.
Moreover, living life in a pragmatic, utilitarian manner turns you into a utilitarian pragmatist. The ‘How do I succeed?’ questions quickly eclipse the ‘Why am I doing this?’ questions.
Suddenly your conversation consists mostly of descriptions of how busy you are.
You’ve read those Marxist analyses of the bosses exploiting the workers. Suddenly it occurs to you that you have become your own boss and your own exploiter. You begin to view yourself not as a soul to be uplifted but as a set of skills to be maximized.
Workaholism is a surprisingly effective distraction from emotional and spiritual problems. It’s surprisingly easy to become emotionally avoidant and morally decoupled, to be less close to and vulnerable with those around you, to wall off the dark jungle deep inside you, to gradually tamp down the highs and lows and simply live in neutral.
Character is no longer a moral quality oriented around love, service, and care, but a set of workplace traits organized around grit, productivity, and self-discipline.
The meritocracy defines community as a mass of talented individuals competing with one another.
While it pretends not to, it subliminally sends the message that those who are smarter and more accomplished are actually worth more than those who are not.
In short, the meritocracy encourages you to drift into a life that society loves but which you don’t. It’s impossible to feel wholehearted.
Danish novelist Matias Dalsgaard calls an insecure overachiever: Such a person must have no stable or solid foundation to build upon, and yet nonetheless tries to build his way out of his problem. It’s an impossible situation. You can’t compensate for having a foundation made of quicksand by building a new story on top. But this person takes no notice and hopes that the problem down in the foundation won’t be found out if only the construction work on the top keeps going.
The insecure overachiever never fully wills anything and thus is never fully satisfied. His brain is moving and his status is rising, but his heart and soul are never fully engaged.
When you have nothing but your identity and job title to rest on, then you find yourself constantly comparing yourself to others. You are haunted by your conception of yourself. People who live in this way imagine that there are other people who are enjoying career splendor and private joy.
What does it profit a man to sell his own soul if others are selling theirs and getting more for it?
Most of us have had to endure some season of suffering, some season when we had to ask ourselves the fundamental questions.
First, they deny that there’s something wrong with their life. Then they intensify their efforts to follow the old failing plan. Then they try to treat themselves with some new thrill: They have an affair, drink more, or start doing drugs. Only when all this fails do they admit that they need to change the way they think about life.
When this happens, they become fragile. Nietzsche says that he who has a why to live for can endure any how. If you know what your purpose is, you can handle the setbacks. But when you don’t know what your purpose is, any setback can lead to total collapse.
In my experience, a telos crisis comes in two forms, walking and sleeping. In the walking form, the sufferer just keeps trudging along. She has been hit by some blow, or suffers from some deep ennui, but she doesn’t know what she wants or how she should change her life, so she just keeps on doing what she was doing same job, same place, and same life.
The second kind of telos crisis is the sleeping kind. In this version, the sufferer is just laid low, crawls into bed, and watches Netflix. His confidence is shot. He is paralyzed by self-focus. He has this weird and unwarranted conviction that it’s too late for him; life has passed him by. Other people’s accomplishments begin to bring real pain, as the distance between their (apparent) swift ascent and his pathetic stasis begins to seem hopelessly wide.
Eventually there’s no escaping the big questions. “What’s my best life? What do I believe in? Where do I belong?”.
The English philosopher Simon May said that love is ontological rootedness. Love gives you a feeling of being grounded.
A half century of emancipation has made individualism, which was the heaven for our grandparents, into our hell. It has produced four interrelated social crises.
THE LONELINESS CRISIS
Since 1999, the U.S. suicide rate has risen by 30 percent. The plague hit the young hard. Between 2006 and 2016, suicide rates for those between age ten and seventeen rose by 70 percent.
Opioid addiction is just slow-motion suicide.
DISTRUST The second crisis is one of alienation. The great sociologist Robert Nisbet defines alienation as the state of mind that can find a social order remote, incomprehensible, or fraudulent.
Now it is assumed that if you give, they will take. If you sacrifice, others will take advantage. The reciprocity is gone, and people feel detached from their neighbors and disgusted by the institutions of public life.
Robert Putnam of Harvard points out, that’s for a very good reason: People are less trustworthy. It’s not that perception is getting worse. It’s actual behavior. The quality of our relationships is worse. Distrust breeds distrust. When people feel distrustful they conclude that the only person they can rely on is themselves. What loneliness is more lonely than distrust? George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch.
THE CRISIS OF MEANING
When you take away a common moral order and tell everybody to find their own definition of the mystery of life, most people will come up empty. They will not have a compelling story that explains the meaning of their life in those moments when life gets hard. In a study for his book The Path to Purpose, William Damon found that only 20 percent of young adults have a fully realized sense of purpose.
All of these numbers suggest people do not feel they are part of some larger story that they can believe in and dedicate their lives to.
TRIBALISM These three crises have given rise to a fourth one, which is not a facet of extreme individualism itself, but our reaction to it.
Hannah Arendt noticed the phenomenon decades ago. When she looked into the lives of people who had become political fanatics, she found two things: loneliness and spiritual emptiness. Loneliness is the common ground of terror, she wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism.
Their evolutionary response is self-protection, so they fall back on ancient instincts for how to respond to a threat: us versus them.
Community is connection based on mutual affection. Tribalism, in the sense I’m using it here, is connection based on mutual hatred.
The tribal mentality is a warrior mentality based on scarcity: Life is a battle for scarce resources and it’s always us versus them, zero-sum. The ends justify the means. Politics is war. Ideas are combat. It’s kill or be killed. Mistrust is the tribalist worldview. Tribalism is community for lonely narcissists.
Once politics becomes your ethnic or moral identity, it becomes impossible to compromise, because compromise becomes dishonor.
In The Age of Anxiety, W. H. Auden wrote,
Seasons of suffering kick us in the ass. They are the foghorns that blast us out of our complacency and warn us we are heading for the wrong life.
Sometimes grief is just grief, to be gotten through.
But sometimes, when suffering can be connected to a larger narrative of change and redemption, we can suffer our way to wisdom. This is the kind of wisdom you can’t learn from books; you have to experience it yourself. Sometimes you experience your first taste of nobility in the way you respond to suffering.
Suffering teaches us gratitude. Normally we take love and friendship for granted. But in seasons of suffering we throw ourselves on others and appreciate the gifts that our loved ones offer. Suffering puts you in solidarity with others who suffer. It makes you more sympathetic to those who share this or some other sort of pain. In this way it tenderizes the heart.
After seasons of suffering, we see that the desires of the ego are very small desires, and certainly not the ones we should organize our lives around.
The poet Ted Hughes observed that the things that are the worst to undergo are often the best to remember, because at those low moments the protective shells are taken off, humility is achieved, a problem is clearly presented, and a call to service is clearly received.
The right thing to do when you are in moments of suffering is to stand erect in the suffering. Wait. See what it has to teach you. Understand that your suffering is a task that, if handled correctly, with the help of others, will lead to enlargement, not diminishment.
The valley is where we shed the old self so the new self can emerge. There are no shortcuts. There’s just the same eternal three-step process that the poets have described from time eternal: from suffering to wisdom to service. Dying to the old self, cleansing in the emptiness, resurrecting in the new. From the agony of the valley, to the purgation in the desert, to the insight on the mountaintop.
A lot is gained simply by going into a different physical place. You need to taste and touch and feel your way toward a new way of being.
In the wilderness, life is stripped of distractions. It is quiet. The topography demands discipline, simplicity, and fierce attention. Solitude in the wilderness makes irrelevant all the people-pleasing habits that have become interwoven into your personality.
What happens when a ‘gifted child’ finds himself in a wilderness where he’s stripped of any way of proving his worth? asks Belden Lane in Backpacking with the Saints. What does he do when there’s nothing he can do, when there’s no audience to applaud his performance, when he faces a cold, silent indifference, if not hostility? His world falls to pieces. The soul hungry for approval starves in a desert like that. It reduces the compulsive achiever to something little, utterly ordinary. Only then is he able to be loved.
The leanness of wilderness life prepares you for intimacy with yourself. Sometimes that surfaces the pain. There are the red-hot memories of past failures and past grief. There are all the wounds inflicted by parents and grandparents. There are your own bad actions that flow from these wounds your tendency to lash out, or your tendency to be hyper-afraid of abandonment, or your tendency to be incommunicative and to withdraw at the first sign of stress.
As long as your wounded part remains foreign to your adult self, your pain will injure you as well as others. As the saying goes, suffering that is not transformed is transmitted.
The teacher Parker Palmer echoes the theme: As the darkness began to descend on me in my early twenties, I thought I had developed a unique and terminal case of failure. I did not realize that I had merely embarked on a journey toward joining the human race.
Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about quite apart from what I would like it to be about.
Real listening, whether to others or yourself, involves that unexpected extra round of questions, stretching the asking beyond what feels natural.
The wilderness teaches negative capability, the ability to rest in uncertainty, to not jump to premature conclusions.
Listening to life means asking, “What have I done well? What have I done poorly? What do I do when I’m not being paid or rewarded? Were there times when I put on faces that other people wanted me to wear, or that I thought other people wanted me to wear?”
On the surface of our lives most of us build the hard shell. It is built to cover fear and insecurity and win approval and success. When you get down to the core of yourself, you find a different, more primeval country, and in it a deep yearning to care and connect.
These are the layers of life covered by economics and political science and evolutionary psychology. But those layers don’t explain Chartres Cathedral or Ode to Joy; they don’t explain Nelson Mandela in jail, Abraham Lincoln in the war room, or a mother holding her baby. They don’t explain the fierceness and fullness of love, as we all experience it.
Our emotions guide us. Our emotions assign value to things and tell us what is worth wanting. The passions are not the opposite of reason; they are the foundation of reason and often contain a wisdom the analytic brain can’t reach.
The ultimate heart’s desire the love behind all the other loves is the desire to lose yourself in something or someone.
There is some piece of your consciousness that has no shape, size, weight, or color. This is the piece of you that is of infinite value and dignity. The dignity of this piece doesn’t increase or decrease with age; it doesn’t get bigger or smaller depending on your size and strength.
The soul is the piece of your consciousness that has moral worth and bears moral responsibility.
Because you have this essence inside of you, as the philosopher Gerald K. Harrison put it, your actions are either praiseworthy or blameworthy. Because you have this moral piece in you, you are judged for being the kind of person you are, for the thoughts you think and the actions you take.
Socrates said that the purpose of life is the perfection of our soul to realize the goodness that the soul longs for.
You see how often events are driven by our need to feel morally justified, our need to feel righteous and to offer care, and unfortunately our need to assign guilt and feel morally superior.
And then there are moments, maybe more toward middle or old age, when the leopard comes down out of the hills and just sits there in the middle of your doorframe. He stares at you, inescapably. He demands your justification. What good have you served? For what did you come? What sort of person have you become?
Most of us learn the lesson Dostoyevsky learned gradually, over seasons of suffering, often in the wilderness. The lesson is that the things we had thought were most important achievement, affirmation, intelligence are actually less important, and the things we had undervalued heart and solar actually most important.
Individualism says, Shoot for personal happiness, but the person on the second mountain says, No, I shoot for meaning and moral joy.
That individualism says, Celebrate independence, but the second-mountain hero says, I will celebrate interdependence. I will celebrate the chance to become dependent on those I care for and for them to become dependent on me. Individualism celebrates autonomy; the second mountain celebrates relation. Individualism speaks with an active voice lecturing, taking charge and never the passive voice. But the second-mountain rebellion seeks to listen and respond, communicating in the voice of intimate exchange.
Individualism thrives in the prosaic world, the world of career choices and worldly accomplishment. The second-mountain ethos says, No, this is an enchanted world, a moral and emotional drama. Individualism accepts and assumes self-interest. The second-mountain ethos says that a worldview that focuses on self-interest doesn’t account for the full amplitude of the human person. We are capable of great acts of love that self-interest cannot fathom, and murderous acts of cruelty that self-interest cannot explain. Individualism says, The main activities of life are buying and selling. But you say, No, the main activity of life is giving. Human beings at their best are givers of gifts. Individualism says, You have to love yourself first before you can love others. But the second-mountain ethos says, You have to be loved first so you can understand love, and you have to see yourself actively loving others so that you know you are worthy of love. On the first mountain, a person makes individual choices and keeps their options open. The second mountain is a vale of promise making. It is about making commitments, tying oneself down, and giving oneself away. It is about surrendering the self and making the kind of commitment that, in the Bible, Ruth made to Naomi: Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried.
The process of commitment making is similar across all four realms. All of them require a vow of dedication, an investment of time and effort, a willingness to close off other options, and the daring to leap headlong down a ski run that is steeper and bumpier than it appears.
A commitment is a promise made from love. A commitment is making a promise to something without expecting a returnout of sheer lovingness.
If a couple is actually in love, and you pull them aside and tell them that this love probably doesn’t make sense and they should forsake it, you will almost certainly not persuade them. They’d rather be in turmoil with each other than in tranquility alone.
It happens when some person or cause or field of research has become part of your very identity. You have reached the point of the double negative. I can’t not do this. Somewhere along the way you realized, I’m a musician. I’m a Jew. I’m a scientist. I’m a Marine. I’m an American. I love her. I am his beloved.
In this way, a commitment is different from a contract. A person making a contract is weighing pros and cons. A person entering into a contract doesn’t really change. She just finds some arrangement that will suit her current interests. A commitment, on the other hand, changes who you are, or rather embeds who you are into a new relationship. You are not just man or woman. You are husband and wife. You are not just an adult; you are a teacher or a nurse. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks clarifies the difference: A contract is a transaction. A covenant is a relationship. Or to put it slightly differently: a contract is about interests. A covenant is about identity. It is about you and me coming together to form an ˜us.’ That is why contracts benefit, but covenants transform.
Spouses love each other, but they bind themselves down with a legal, public, and often religious marriage commitment, to limit their future choices for those times when they get on each other’s nerves.
Curious people may read books, but they also enroll in universities to make sure they follow a supervised course of study for at least a few years into the future.
Spiritual people may experience transcendence, but understand that for most people spirituality lasts and deepens only if it is lived out within that maddening community called institutionalized religion. Religions embed the love of God in holidays, stories, practices, and rituals, and make them solid and enduring.
Thus, the most complete definition of a commitment is this: falling in love with something and then building a structure of behavior around it for those moments when love falters.
Our commitments give us our identity. They are how we introduce ourselves to strangers.
Our commitments give us a sense of purpose.
Paul Froese calls existential urgency. In the turmoil of their lives, they were compelled to make fierce commitments to one another merely to survive. They were willing to risk their lives for one another. And these fierce commitments gave their lives a sense of meaning. That’s the paradox of privilege. When we are well-off we chase the temporary pleasures that actually draw us apart. We use our wealth to buy big houses with big yards that separate us and make us lonely. But in crisis we are compelled to hold closely to one another in ways that actually meet our deepest needs.
Our commitments allow us to move to a higher level of freedom. In our culture we think of freedom as the absence of restraint. That’s freedom from. But there is another and higher kind of freedom. That is freedom to. This is the freedom as fullness of capacity, and it often involves restriction and restraint.
You have to chain yourself to the piano and practice for year after year if you want to have the freedom to really play. You have to chain yourself to a certain set of virtuous habits so you don’t become slave to your destructive desires the desire for alcohol, the desire for approval, the desire to lie in bed all day.
As the theologian Tim Keller puts it, real freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones.
Our commitments build our moral character.
When you’re deep in a commitment, the distinction between altruism and selfishness begins to fade away. When you serve your child it feels like you are serving a piece of yourself. That disposition to do good is what having good character is all about.
Character emerges from our commitments. If you want to inculcate character in someone else, teach them how to form commitments temporary ones in childhood, provisional ones in youth, permanent ones in adulthood. Commitments are the school for moral formation. When your life is defined by fervent commitments, you are on the second mountain.
As I mentioned in the introduction, most of us make four big commitments over the course of our lives: to a vocation, to a spouse and family, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community.
There are six layers of desire:
Generativity. The pleasure we get in giving back to others and serving our communities.
Fulfilled love. Receiving and giving love. The rapturous union of souls.
Transcendence. The feeling we get when living in accordance with some ideal.
Emotional, spiritual, and moral motivations: a desire to live in intimate relation with others, to make a difference in the world, to feel right with oneself.
They tend to be hedgehogs, not foxes. In the famous formulation, the fox knows many things and can see the world with an opposable mind, from many points of view. But the hedgehog knows one thing, has one big idea around which his or her life revolves. This is the mentality that committed community weavers tend to have.
You stop asking, “What do I want? and start asking, What is life asking of me?” You respond.
Community builders. They use it to suggest a kind of giving that is not heroic or cinematic. It’s just being present with other people year after year, serving in both routine ways and large ones. This kind of giving creates stability in life, a continuity of the self as the circumstances of life ebb and flow.
Community builders talk about the need to take a whole-person approach.
You can’t think your way out of emotional difficulties. That takes something altogether different. You have to make yourself passive then, and just listen. Re-establish contact with a slice of eternity.
One task in life is synthesis. It is to collect all the fragmented pieces of a self and bring them to a state of unity, so that you move coherently toward a single vision.
It was through an outer process of giving her whole self away. Happiness, Dr. William H. Sheldon wrote, is essentially a state of going somewhere, wholeheartedly, one-directionally, without reservation or regret.
Happiness, Dr. William H. Sheldon wrote, is essentially a state of going somewhere, wholeheartedly, one-directionally, without reservation or regret.
The practical way we do that is through commitments through making maximal commitments to things we really care about and then serving them in a wholehearted way.
In 1946, George Orwell published a brilliant essay called “Why I Write” about his vocation as a novelist and essayist.
He writes, he says, for four basic reasons. First, sheer egoism. The desire to seem clever and to get talked about. Second, aesthetic enthusiasm. The pleasure he gets from playing with sentences and words.
Third, then, is the historic impulse, the desire for understanding. The desire to see things as they are and find out true facts. Fourth, his political purpose. The desire to push the world in a certain direction, and to alter people’s ideas of what sort of society they should strive for.
Finally, at age twenty-five, he succumbed to his destiny. He decided that if he was going to be a writer he needed to do three things. First, he needed to live among the poor. He was a man of the left, but believed that the problem with his fellow socialists was that they didn’t have much direct contact with the poor people they were allegedly liberating.
Next, he needed to invent a new way of writing. He would turn nonfiction writing into a literary form.
Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness, he wrote. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. But the pain was purifying. Like T. S. Eliot, Orwell believed that good writing involves a continual extinction of personality. One struggles, Orwell wrote, to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. The act of writing well involved self-suppression, putting the reader in direct contact with the thing described.
Finally, Orwell decided that in order to fulfill his calling he had to be ruthlessly honest, even about the people on his own side.
When Orwell returned from Spain he was transformed. He had experienced his call within a call, that purifying moment when you know why you were put on this earth and you are ruthless about pursuing this mission.
When you have a career mentality, the frontal cortex is very much in charge. You take an inventory of your talents. What are you good at? What talent has value in the marketplace?
You follow the incentives to get the highest return on your investment of time and effort.
You reap the rewards of success: respect, self-esteem, and financial security.
In the vocation mentality, you’re not living on the ego level of your consciousness working because the job pays well or makes life convenient.
Some activity or some injustice has called to the deepest level of your nature and demanded an active response.
Then came World War II and the Nazi occupation. Frankl found himself thrown into a concentration camp. He realized that the career questions: What do I want from life? What can I do to make myself happy? are not the proper questions. The real question is, What is life asking of me? Frankl realized that a psychiatrist in a concentration camp has a responsibility to study suffering and reduce suffering. It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us, he realized. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life daily and hourly. Our answer must consist not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which life constantly sets for each individual.
What is my responsibility here? Frankl went on to work as a psychotherapist in the camp, reminding despairing prisoners that the world still expected things of them. They still had responsibilities and purposes to pursue.
The second thing you notice about the Orwell story is that
He had to go through a period of wandering before he settled back into the vocation that called him all along.
People who write about vocation often cite a poem by William Wordsworth.
His heart was full. He himself didn’t make a promise, but somehow vows were made for me. He was destined, he realized at that moment, to become a poet, a dedicated spirit, to spend his life capturing what he then felt.
Wordsworth, in other words, had to endure a period of drift while waiting to settle into his groove in life, the way most of us do.
In two strokes, Wordsworth had money and a rent-free residence of a grand estate. The rest is history.
When you hear adults talk about their annunciation moments, they often tell stories of something lost and something found.
As my friend April Lawson puts it, we were all missing something as children, and as adults we’re willing to put up with a lot in order to get it.
The Greek word for beauty was kalon, which is related to the word for call. Beauty incites a desire to explore something and live within it. Children put posters of their obsessions on the wall. They draw images of them in art class and on the covers of their notebooks. I am seeking. I am striving. I am in it with all my heart, Vincent van Gogh wrote, in the middle of a life obsessed with beauty.
In his essay Schopenhauer as Educator, Nietzsche wrote that the way to discover what you were put on earth for is to go back into your past, list the times you felt most fulfilled, and then see if you can draw a line through them.
“What have you truly loved thus far? What has ever uplifted your soul? What has dominated and delighted it at the same time?”.
He writes, Let the young soul survey its own life with a view to the following question: ˜What have you truly loved thus far? What has ever uplifted your soul, what has dominated and delighted it at the same time?’ Assemble these revered objects in a row before you and perhaps they will reveal a law by their nature and their order: the fundamental law of your very self.
The best thing about an annunciation moment is that it gives you an early hint of where your purpose lies. The next best thing is it rules out a bunch of other things. Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him, Walker Percy observes.
Any book or lecture can tell you how to do a thing. But in any craft, whether it is cooking or carpentry or science or leadership, there are certain forms of knowledge that can’t be put into rules or recipes practical forms of knowledge that only mentors can teach.
Practical knowledge, on the other hand, cannot be taught or learned but only imparted and acquired. It exists only in practice. When we talk about practical knowledge, we tend to use bodily metaphors. We say that somebody has a touch for doing some activity an ability to hit the right piano key with just enough force and pace. We say that somebody has a feel for the game, an intuition for how events are going to unfold, an awareness of when you should plow ahead with a problem and when you should put it aside before coming back to it. We say that somebody has taste, an aesthetic sense of what product or presentation is excellent, and which ones are slightly off.
When the expert is using her practical knowledge, she isn’t thinking more; she is thinking less. She has built up a repertoire of skills through habit and has thereby extended the number of tasks she can perform without conscious awareness.
It is passed along by a mentor who lets you come alongside and participate in a thousand situations.
A textbook can teach you the principles of biology, but a mentor shows you how to think like a biologist.
They are the ones who balanced unstinting love with high standards and relentless demands on behalf of something they took seriously.
Mentors also teach how to deal with error. As you get more experienced, you get a lot better at recognizing your mistakes and understanding, through experience, how to fix them.
Finally, mentors teach how to embrace the struggle that the struggle is the good part.
James concluded that there is something in us that seems to require difficulty and the overcoming of difficulty, the presence of both light and darkness, danger and deliverance.
The last thing a mentor does, of course, is send you out into the world and, in some sense, cut you off.
Life is filled with vampire problems. Marriage turns you into a different person. Having kids changes who you are and what you want. So does emigrating to a new country, converting to a different religion, going to med school, joining the Marines, changing careers, and deciding on where to live. Every time you make a commitment to something big, you are making a transformational choice.
Furthermore, you’re aware that this is the kind of choice that will cast a lingering shadow. Every choice is a renunciation, or an infinity of renunciations.
Some people rely on the You Just Know model. When the right thing comes along, you get a feeling and you just know. T. D. Jakes says life is like having a big ring of keys, and there’s a single lock that is your best life. You try some of the keys and eventually you get to one that feels different. As soon as you put it in the keyhole, before you even turn it, you feel a whoosh and you know it’s right.
Kahneman and Tversky, along with many other behavioral economists, have filled books and books with all the ways our intuitions can betray us loss aversion, priming effects, the halo effect, the optimism bias, and so forth.
Finally, intuition is reliable only in certain sorts of decisions. Intuition is a fancy word for pattern recognition. It can be trusted only in domains in which you have a lot of experience, in which the mind has time to master the various patterns. But when you are making a transformational choice, you are leaping into an unknown territory. You don’t know the patterns there. Intuition can’t tell you. It’s just guessing.
The seemingly better method, especially in our culture, is to step back and make the decision rationally. Put your emotions off to one side and adopt a detached, scientific point of view. Find an engineering method, a design model, or some technique that will allow you to self-distance. Grab a legal pad. Write out a list of costs and benefits down either side.
Decision-making experts fill books with clear decision stages: preparation (identify the problem; determine your objectives), search (assemble a list of the possible jobs or people that will help you meet your objectives), evaluation (make a chart and rate the options on a ten-point scale according to various features), confrontation (ask disconfirming questions; create constructive disagreement to challenge existing premises), selection (tally up the scores; build a consequences table that will help you envision the future outcome of each choice).
For example, when you are considering quitting your job, apply the 10-10-10 rule. How will this decision feel in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years? That will help you put the short-term emotional pain of any decision in the context of long-term consequences.
As the management experts Chip and Dan Heath argue, they try to turn every open-ended question into a whether or not question, or an either-or question. People unconsciously think of decisions as a choice between two options.
In most key decision moments, there are actually many more options that are being filtered out by that point of view. Every time you find yourself saying whether or not, the Heaths argue, it’s a good idea to step back and find more options.
The first problem is the one described at the start of this chapter. You can have no data on what your transformed self will want, so you can’t rationally think it through by tallying up the evidence. The second problem is that when you’re making a decision about a big commitment, you are making a decision about the ultimate moral purpose and meaning of your life.
Logic is really good when the ends of a decision are clear, when you are playing a game with a defined set of rules.
If you go to the career-advice gurus to find your vocation, the question many will put at the center of your search is What is my talent?
One of the implications here is that in selecting a career path, talent should trump interest. If you are really interested in art but you’re not actually that good at it, you’ll wind up at some boring design job for a company you don’t care about at the bottom of the profession. When making a vocational choice ask, What am I talented at?
But if you are trying to discern your vocation, the right question is not What am I good at? It’s the harder questions: What am I motivated to do? What activity do I love so much that I’m going to keep getting better at it for the next many decades? What do I desire so much that it captures me at the depth of my being? In choosing a vocation, it’s precisely wrong to say that talent should trump interest.
Interest multiplies talent and is in most cases more important than talent. The crucial terrain to be explored in any vocation search is the terrain of your heart and soul, your long-term motivation. Knowledge is plentiful; motivation is scarce.
Robert Greene gets at the core truth in his book Mastery: Your emotional commitment to what you are doing will be translated directly into your work. If you go at your work with half a heart, it will show in the lackluster results and in the laggard way in which you reach the end.
A daemon is a calling, an obsession, a source of lasting and sometimes manic energy.
The daemon identifies itself as an obsessive interest, a feeling of being at home at a certain sort of place, doing a certain activity standing.
Afterward, it became an economic transaction; you perform the service of looking after my kid and I pay you for it. In the former, people are thinking in terms of right and wrong, being considerate or inconsiderate. In the latter, a cost-benefit calculation kicks in. What’s best for me? People who spend their lives thinking exclusively in economic terms tend to cover over their access to the Big Shaggy and to the daemons found there.
Mill realized what constant study of data and nonfiction had done to him. He realized that the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings.
I remember thinking: Oh, that’s what it takes. You can’t write military bestsellers unless you genuinely feel what you’re writing about is the coolest thing on earth. It won’t work unless the boyish enthusiasm flows genuinely from your very heart. You can’t fake it.
The best advice I’ve heard for people in search of a vocation is to say yes to everything. Say yes to every opportunity that comes along, because you never know what will lead to what. Have a bias toward action. Think of yourself as a fish that is hoping to get caught. Go out there among the fishhooks.
What pains am I willing to tolerate?
What do I enjoy talking about?
When have I felt most needed?
What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
Swaniker believes that we are defined by these moments of obligation, which are usually caused by a sense of outrage about some injustice, wrong-doing or unfairness we see in society.
Swaniker advises, ask three big questions: First, Is it big enough?
Second, Am I uniquely positioned¦to make this happen?
Third, Am I truly passionate? Does the issue generate obsessive thinking? Does it keep you up at night?
If your answer to each question is not a resounding yes, Swaniker advises, you should ignore that idea.
What problems are around me? What has my life given me as preparation? How can the two go together?
It’s asking, What will touch my deepest desire? What activity gives me my deepest satisfaction? Second, it’s about fit. A vocation decision is not about finding the biggest or most glamorous problem in the world. Instead, it’s about finding a match between a delicious activity and a social need.
That’s a useful distinction. A job is a way of making a living, but work is a particular way of being needed, of fulfilling the responsibility that life has placed before you.
My own particular cover is that of a university professor, he writes. It’s a way of looking responsible while attending to much more important things.
All vocational work, no matter how deeply it touches you, involves those moments when you are confronted by the laborious task.
Sometimes, if you are going to be a professional, you just have to dig the damn ditch.
The Mental ABC’s of Pitching, Dorfman says that this kind of structured discipline is necessary if you want to escape the tyranny of the scattered mind. Self-discipline is a form of freedom, he writes. Freedom from laziness and lethargy, freedom from expectations and the demands of others, freedom from weakness and fear and doubt.
Work is the way we make ourselves useful to our fellows.
Vocation can be a cure for self-centeredness, because to do the work well you have to pay attention to the task itself.
Vocation can be a cure for restlessness. Mastering a vocation is more like digging a well. You do the same damn thing day after day, and gradually, gradually, you get deeper and better.
At the beginning it involves a choice choosing this or that vocation. But 99.9 percent of the time it means choosing what one has already chosen.
People who have achieved mastery no longer just see the individual chess pieces; they see the whole. They perceive the fields of forces that are actually driving the match.
those low motivations are often tales they tell because they don’t want to appear earnest about their high and powerful idealism the need to express some emotion in themselves, to explore some experience.
One of the best pieces of advice for young people is: Get to yourself quickly. If you know what you want to do, start doing it. Don’t delay because you think this job or that degree would be good preparation for doing what you eventually want to do.
There’s a moment in many successful careers when the prospect of success tries to drag you away from your source, away from the daemon that incited your work in the first place.
At the grand level, marriage means offering love, respect, and safety, but day to day, there are never-ending small gestures of tact and consideration, in which you show you understand her moods, you cherish his presence, that this other person is the center of your world. At the end of the day there is the brutal grinding effort of surrendering the ego to the altar of marriage, giving up part of yourself, the desires you have, for the larger union.
Many modern books pick up the realist/anti-romantic theme. Laura Kipnis wrote Against Love: A Polemic. In 2013, Pascal Bruckner wrote the provocative Has Marriage for Love Failed? In 2008, Lori Gottlieb wrote a much-discussed piece in The Atlantic that became a book called Marry Him!: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.
The assault on maximal marriage comes from three directions. First, in a culture where divorce is common, and the effects often severe, many people adopt a safety-first attitude.
Second, many people find themselves in marriages that aren’t that great, and they embrace a definition of marriage that allows them to make do.
Third, the culture of individualism undermines the maximal definition of marriage.
As Finkel writes, Expressive individualism is characterized by a strong belief in individual specialness; voyages of self-discovery are viewed as ennobling.
Since around 1965, Finkel writes, we have been living in the era of the self-expressive marriage. Americans now look to marriage increasingly for self-discovery, self-esteem, and personal growth.
If the maximum definition of marriage is to be flesh of my flesh, then the individualist definition of love is autonomy but support. If a covenantal view of marriage is putting the needs of the relationship above the needs of each individual, then the individualist view of marriage puts the needs of the individual above the relationship.
Perhaps the greatest problem with this regime of choice, she continues, stems from its misconception of maturity as absolute self-sufficiency. Attachment is infantilized. The desire for recognition is rendered as ˜neediness.’ Intimacy must never challenge ‘personal boundaries.’
If you go into marriage seeking self-actualization, you will always feel frustrated because marriage, and especially parenting, will constantly be dragging you away from the goals of self.
The heart yearns to fuse with others. This can be done only through an act of joint surrender, not through joint autonomy.
In the ethos of commitment, marriage is a moral microcosm of life, in which each person freely chooses to take on responsibility for others, and become dependent on others in order to do something larger.
We must return to an attitude of total abandonment, Mike Mason writes in The Mystery of Marriage, of throwing all our natural caution and defensiveness to the winds and putting ourselves entirely in the hands of love by an act of will.
The alternative to this truce-marriage is to determine to see your own selfishness as a fundamental problem and to treat it more seriously than you do your spouse’s. Why? Only you have complete access to your own selfishness, and only you have complete responsibility for it, the Kellers write. If two spouses each say, ˜I’m going to treat my self-centeredness as the main problem in the marriage,’ you have the prospect of a truly great marriage.
Marriage involves fighting and recovery, small and large acts of betrayal, and apology. And there’s the great problem of marriage, the Kellers write. The one person in the whole world who holds your heart in your hand, whose approval and affirmation you most long for and need, is the one who is hurt more deeply by your sins than anyone else on the planet.
Great marriages are measured by how much the spouses are able to take joy in each other’s victories. They are also measured by how gently they correct each other’s vices.
Think of the facets of curiosity: They are all comparable to the stages of early intimacy and early love. There is joyous exploration, the desire to learn more about the person. There is absorption, seeing only this person and not anyone else in the room. There is stretching, the willingness to be in new situations if you get the chance to be with him. There is what some psychologists call deprivation sensitivity, the feeling of emptiness when you are not with the person. There is what the experts call intrusive thinking: She’s on your mind all the time.
At the early stages of dialogue, couples are looking for similarity.
People begin looking for vulnerability, the process of the slow, step-by-step unveiling. This is part of the inevitable effort to get to know the person’s fragile places. But it’s also the phase of moral testing. You want to know, If I unveil, will you protect? If I proceed cautiously, will you understand me and match my pace? If I pause, will you respect my pause and wait for me? If I reveal the scariest of my dark monsters, will you hold me? Will you reveal yours? Politeness is at the core of morality.
The biggest problem in the dialogue phase is fear. Intimacy happens when somebody shares something emotionally meaningful, and the other person receives it and shares back. One obvious fear is that you’ll expose your tender flesh and the other person will trample it and then leave. Another obvious fear is that you’ll discover that the other person seeks a future you cannot provide. The deeper and more potent fear is that in exposing yourself to others you will actually understand yourself.
About a fifth of adults in Western cultures are afraid of intimacy, afraid of commitment. They expect abandonment to happen and take actions to ensure that what is familiar will indeed come to pass.
As Alain de Botton notes, we are all crazy in some way. The crucial question at the depth of any relationship is not Is he crazy? It is What are the ways you are crazy? What parts of your life have been blocked by fear? How exactly do you self-destruct? In what ways have you not been loved?
In any courtship, you show your trustworthiness by the safe steadiness of your advance.
Good people will mirror goodness in us, which is why we love them so much, Richard Rohr writes. Not-so-mature people will mirror their own unlived and confused life onto us.
When you choose to marry someone, you had better choose someone you’ll enjoy talking with for the rest of your life. It doesn’t work unless two people can fall into a state of fluid conversational flow.
A wrong is an occasion to reevaluate. What is the character of the person in question? Should a moment of stupidity eclipse an overall record of decency? Or is this a permanent character trait? Both partners ask these questions together and then bend toward each other.
It is both a selfish desire and a selfless gift. It fills us up and reminds us of our own incompleteness. Love plows open the hard crust of our personality and exposes the fertile soil below. Love decenters the self. It teaches us that our riches are in another. It teaches us that we can’t give ourselves what we truly need, which is somebody else’s love.
For love must grow or die.
When one member of a couple suffers from Alzheimer’s, the other doesn’t just go away. Instead, as Lewis puts it, love says, Better this than parting. Better to be miserable with her than happy without her. Let our hearts break provided they break together.
Presumably most of the couples that went on to get married walked through most of the same stages of intimacy you did; they felt the same rush of love, the same sense of fusion and destiny and then they married and then they got divorced. Love and passion are not enough.
Everybody spends too much time appraising the other person when making marriage decisions, but the person who can really screw things up is you. These are questions such as: Have you got to the place where you can really do this? D. H. Lawrence once wrote, You can’t worship love and individuality in the same breath.
Do I like the person I am when I’m around him? We all have multiple personalities we project into the world, depending on whom we are around.
What’s my core issue, and does this person fill it?
Jane Austen thought it was wicked to settle, and I’m with her. If you marry without total admiration and rapture, you will not have enough passion to fuse you together in the early days, and you will split apart when times get hard.
Moreover, settling is immoral because there is another person involved. The other person is not going to want to be the fourth best option in your life. Are you going into the relationship telling the person that you’re settling in being with them? If you’re honest and tell him that, you’re introducing a fatal inequality into your relationship right away. If you don’t tell him that, you are lying to the person you are supposedly closest to in the whole world.
Marriage is a fifty-year conversation. The most important factor in when you think about marrying someone is, Would I enjoy talking with this person for the rest of my life?
In 1938, the researcher Lewis Terman argued that you should look at a person’s relational background. He ranked the things to look for: Superior happiness of parents Childhood happiness Lack of conflict with mother Home discipline that was firm, not harsh Strong attachment to mother Strong attachment to father Lack of conflict with father Parental frankness about matters of sex Infrequency and mildness of childhood punishment Premarital attitude toward sex that was free from disgust or aversion
People who were securely attached to one caregiver as early as eighteen months (about 60 percent of all people) have a model in their heads for how to build and maintain secure relationships.
People who experienced anxious attachment patterns when they were infants are more likely to have trouble relaxing when they are in loving relationships.
People who had avoidant attachment patterns when they were young (they sent signals to their caregivers, but nothing came back), have preemptively shut down.
The Big Five are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. When it comes to a relationship partner, the last two traits are the most important.
The Greeks distinguished between three types of love: philia (friendship), eros (passion), and agape (selfless giving).
If an enchantment is going to be one of your life-defining commitments, it will already have elements of all three: intimacy, desire, and self-sacrificial love.
Is this person honest? Does she have integrity?
Disagreement is inevitable, and marriages survive it, but contempt is deadly and always kills a marital bond. So a crucial question is, “Do I deeply admire this person? When you are making a marital commitment, you are making a vow, a promise. So another crucial question is, Does this person keep his or her promises?”
Does this person have the qualities you would want passed down to your precious kids?
What is at the core of this person, after you take away the education, the skills, the accomplishments, and the brands?
Does this person ever brag about behavior that he should be ashamed of cheating other people to get ahead, being cruel to underlings to establish dominance, manipulating other people to get what he wants?
Is this person’s form of selfishness the kind I can live with?
The thing you love about the person is connected to the exact thing that will come to drive you the most crazy.
The only way to thrive in marriage is to become a better person more.
To separate emotionally from the family of one’s childhood To build intimacy combined with some autonomy To embrace the role of parents and absorb the impact of Her Majesty, the Baby’s arrival To confront the inevitable crises of life To establish a rich sexual life To create a safe haven for the expression of difference To keep alive the early idealized images of each other
A marriage survives when the partners agree to take lifelong courses together in subjects like empathy, communication, and recommitment.
When marriages break down, it’s because one or both partners feels unknown and misunderstood.
John Gottman, the dean of marriage scholars, grasped the essence: Happy marriages are based on a deep friendship. By this I mean mutual respect for and enjoyment of each other’s company. These couples tend to know each other intimately they are well versed in each other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams. They have an abiding regard for each other and express this fondness not just in big ways but in little ways day in and day out.
Psychologists joke that a marriage is a battleground in which two families send their best warriors to determine which family’s culture will direct the couple’s lives.
In the end, people in an enduring marriage achieve metis. That’s the Greek word for a kind of practical wisdom, an intuitive awareness of how things are, how things go together, and how things will never go together.
In marriages that succeed, Gottman has found, the couple experiences five toward bids for every one against or turning-away bid.
There’s a habit of mind that the masters have, which is this: they are scanning the social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes, Gottman said in an interview
Divorce doesn’t generally happen when the number of conflicts increases; it happens when the number of positive things decreases.
Julie Gottman, John’s wife, points out that masters of relationship are on alert for what their partner is doing right, and they are quick to compliment.
Masters also learn never to sulk. Sulking consists of feeling angry about something but determined not to communicate about it.
Relationship masters also learn how to communicate well in times of triumph and conflict.
Shelly Gable, a psychologist at UC Santa Barbara, found that those are the moments that often drive people apart. One spouse comes home reporting some promotion at work, but the other person can’t simply join in the happiness because he is too focused on self, so he a) changes the subject to some triumph of his own; b) acknowledges the triumph with a grunt and then gets back to his own business; or c) belittles the triumph by asking, Are you sure you’ll be able to handle this new job?
The sulker is returning to childhood, and dreams of finding a mother who understands what he wants without words or explanation.
Remind the person that you hear and understand them (stroke); state your positions clearly (stand); find a way to meet in the middle (contract).
Parker Palmer comes in handy: If you can’t get out of it, get into it!
Lydia Netzer wrote a blog post called 15 Ways to Stay Married for 15 Years,
Be proud and brag. Boast about your spouse’s accomplishments in public and let him overhear your boasting. Bitch to his mother, not to yours. If you complain about him to his mother, she’ll forgive him; your own mother never will. Trust the person you married. Let the other person help you. Trust them to know what’s right.
Be loyal. You and your spouse are a team of two, Netzer writes. No one else is allowed on the team, and no one else will ever understand the team’s rules. Sometimes she’s in the spotlight, sometimes you. Ups and downs, ultimately, don’t matter because the team endures.
Second love is the kind of love people have for each other after they’ve seen each other at their worst, after they’ve forgiven a few times and been forgiven, after they can take some pride in having survived together and some comfort in the knowledge that they will survive.
It comes when you look back and realize that it’s more accurate to say that you’ve really had five or six different marriages, that you were married to five or six different people who happened to inhabit, over the years, the same body.
Students are taught to engage in critical thinking, to doubt, distance, and take things apart, but they are given almost no instruction on how to attach to things, how to admire, to swear loyalty to, to copy and serve. The universities, like the rest of society, are information rich and meaning poor.
And in that way good teaching is like planting. Those teachers like Weintraub were inserting seeds that would burst in us years or decades later when the realities of adult life called them forth.
The Chicago professors, like all initiators, did at least six things. First, they welcomed us into the tradition of scholars, the long line of men and women who have dedicated themselves to reading, thinking, agitating, and living more fully.
We were just novices in this eternal procession, but still we were part of it.
Second, they introduced us to a range of history’s moral ecologies. All of us require a constructive philosophy of life, a set of criteria to determine what is more valuable than what.
There is, for example, the Greek tradition, emphasizing honor and glory; the Hebraic tradition, emphasizing obedience to law and strictness of conscience; the Christian tradition, emphasizing humility, surrender, and grace; the Enlightenment project, based on reason, individual liberty, and personal freedom. Our professors threw these and other moral ecologies before us: Stoicism, German romanticism, Gnosticism, Buddhism, Confucianism, African animism, Marxism, feminism, deconstructionism. They didn’t tell us which moral ecology to live by, but offered us the chance to try on different ones and to see which one fit.
Third, our professors taught us how to see. Seeing reality seems like a straightforward thing. You just look out and see the world. But anybody who is around politics knows how many of us see the world through the distorting lens of partisanship, how many of us see only what we want to see, and how many of us see through the filter of our fear, insecurity, or narcissism.
Seeing well is a skill you learn from others who see reality clearly: Leonardo da Vinci, George Eliot, George Orwell, Jane Jacobs, James Baldwin, Leo Tolstoy.
The fourth thing our professors did was teach us intellectual courage. There is no such thing as thinking for yourself or thinking alone. All thinking is communication, and all the concepts in your head are inherited from a procession of thinkers stretching back thousands of years. We are social animals, and a lot of our thinking is in pursuit of bonding, not truth seeking. A lot of our thinking is trying to have the opinion that will help you win social approval and admittance into the right social circles. The hard part of intellectual life is separating what is true from what will get you liked.
Fifth, they gave us emotional knowledge. To read Whitman as he exults in joy, to be with Antigone as she struggles to bury her brother, to travel with Galileo as he follows his discoveries wherever they may take him, to be with the mathematician Pascal as he feels the direct presence of God, or to travel with Sylvia Plath into the depths of madness is not necessarily to learn a new fact, but it is to have a new experience.
Sixth, Chicago gave us new things to love. All men and women are born with a desire to know.
We all get a little thrill when we come across a passage in a book that puts into words something we had vaguely intuited.
The central message is to be watchful over what you love, because you become what you desire.
What was worth wanting, what desire was better than the others, what longings were to be embraced and which ones were to be subordinated or renounced.
You’ll always be plagued by a sort of dissatisfaction. Moreover, that dissatisfaction will never go away, because the more progress you make toward your ideals, the more they seem to recede into the distance. As artists get better at their craft, their vision of what they are capable of dashes out even further ahead.
Joy is found not in satisfying your desires but in changing your desires so you have the best desires.
For this reason, the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human modesty, in human responsibility.
Life became not only a physical struggle but a spiritual one, a struggle to protect his own humanity from the dehumanizing conditions that surrounded him.
The characters in the Bible are normal, mottled human beings who are confronted with moral challenges.
Life happened and, as Wiman puts it, My old ideas were not adequate for the extremes of joy and grief I experienced.
I suppose this happens to most of us as we age: We get smaller, and our dependencies get bigger. We become less fascinating to ourselves, less inclined to think of ourselves as the author of all that we are, and at the same time we realize how we have been the ones shaped by history, by family, by forces beyond awareness.
The culture of immigrant Jews instilled a burning hunger to make it. The hunger, once implanted, stays as you age, but the food it seeks changes.
All the geniuses turned out to be Jews: Einstein, Freud, Marx, Lionel Trilling.
Imagine a better future; build a better future.
But real healing comes from realizing that your own particular pain is a share of humanity’s pain.
Seeing the presence of the sacred in the realities of the everyday.
To be religious, as I understand it, is to perceive reality through a sacred lens, to feel that there are spiritual realities in physical, imminent things.
It was going to be a lot harder to actually practice a faith. I was always proud, striving, taking control.
Walker Percy says that good fiction tells us what we know but don’t quite know that we know. The Bible is like that, too.
You can only find yourself by losing yourself. You have to surrender what you love in order to get it back better and more joyfully than before.
I know a lot of people who would prefer to have religious faith, but they just don’t.
When people talk about dying to self, they are really talking about dying to old desires and coming alive to a new and better set of desires.
They minister to and teach them as whole people, who need not just money but dignity, love, and purpose.
In a rich community, people are up in one another’s business, know each other’s secrets, walk with each other in times of grief, and celebrate together in times of joy. In a rich community, people help raise one another’s kids.
When academics talk about this kind of community, they use the term social capital. The term is not great.
The phrase social capital suggests that the thing it measures is quantitative. But care is primarily qualitative. A community is healthy when relationships are felt deeply, when there are histories of trust, a shared sense of mutual belonging, norms of mutual commitment, habits of mutual assistance, and real affection from one heart and soul to another.
Whenever there’s a shooting, there’s always a lonely man who fell through the cracks of society, who lived a life of solitary disappointment and who one day decided to try to make a blood-drenched leap from insignificance to infamy.
People used to say that depression and other mental health challenges were primarily about chemical imbalances in the brain. But as Johann Hari argues in his book Lost Connections, these mental health issues are at least as much about problems in life protracted loneliness, loss of meaningful work, feeling pressured and stressed in the absence of community as they are about one’s neurochemistry.
You’ve probably heard the starfish story. There’s a boy on the beach who finds thousands of starfish washed ashore, dying. He picks one up and throws it back into the ocean. A passerby asks him why he bothered. All these thousands of other starfish are still going to die. Well, the boy responds, I saved that one.
Maybe the pool story is a better metaphor than the starfish story. As a friend of mine puts it, you can’t clean only the part of the pool you are swimming in. You can’t just polish one molecule of water and throw it back in the dirty pool.
If you’re trying to improve lives, you have to think about changing many elements of a single neighborhood all at once.
Klinenberg discovered that the key ingredient was the thickness of community bonds. There were more places to meet in one neighborhood than the other, more places for people to establish relationships, and people who are in dense relationships check in on one another in times of crisis. You wouldn’t necessarily think that the presence of a neighborhood library would have a big effect on who dies in a heat wave, but it does.
Peter Block notes in his book Community, leaders initiate social change when they shift the context within which people gather.
Gathering people together is the start of community, but it is not yet community. There has to be combustionthat moment when the substrate of one life touches the substrate of another, when, as people say afterward, you go deep.
A commitment to community involves moving from I stories to We stories.
Down into ourselves in vulnerability and then outward in solidarity with others.
Edmund Burke argued that people who have never looked backward to their ancestors will not be able to look forward and plan for the future. People who look backward to see the heroism and the struggle that came before see themselves as debtors who owe something, who have some obligation to pay it forward. The idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation and a sure principle of transmission, Burke wrote. We receive, we hold, we cherish what we have been given and enjoy these things and improve them for others. Respecting our ancestors, we learn to respect ourselves.
The code of the neighbor revolves around a few common principles: We are enough. The neighbor doesn’t wait for someone else to address the community’s problems.
Village over self. A good person inconveniences himself for the sake of his community.
Initiating the connection. The good neighbor is the one who invites others over for dinner.
Her actions are geared to make this place better thirty years from now.
When someone is in need, the code of the neighbor says hospitality is first, judgment and everything else comes later.
Grace and forgiveness first, then we can think about what went wrong and heal whatever breach.
The community is the expert.
Neighbors know that it’s not just the school that educates the child, it’s not just the police who keep the town safe, it’s not just the hospital that keeps the people healthy. It is the shared way of living. People are safe when the streetscape is active.
The least are the most. Communities are defined by the treatment of the least among them: the young, the poor, the disabled, or the very sad.
The sin is partly my own. Mutual fallibility is one of the glues that hold community together.
We often contribute to the problems we ourselves complain about.
When people come together to build something, they make implied promises to one another. They promise to work things out. They promise to do their fair share or more of the work. They promise to follow through on the intention to build something new.
The better community-building conversations focus on possibilities, not problems. They are questions such as, What crossroads do we stand at right now? What can we build together? How can we improve our lives together? What talents do we have here that haven’t been fully expressed?
Modern social scientists unfortunately tend to think in statistical correlations, not in biographical narratives.
What assets can we deploy to make our neighborhood one in which everybody looks out for one another? What gifts can we contribute that we might not yet even see in ourselves yet?
Why, despite our best efforts, have we been unable to make this situation better?
A systems approach means acknowledging that each of us sees only a part of a complex world. If you pull one lever here, you’re probably going to produce an unexpected outcome over there. It takes the entire flock, the entire community, to map the whole system and act on all its parts in a continuous way, with continuous feedback conversations.
On the first mountain, the emphasis is on the unencumbered self, individual accomplishment, creating a society in which everyone is free to be themselves. This is a fluid society, and over the short term a productive society, but it is a thin society. It is a society in which people are only lightly attached to each other and to their institutions. The second-mountain society is a thick society. The organizations and communities in that society leave a mark.
A thick institution is not trying to serve its people instrumentally, to give them a degree or to simply help them earn a salary. A thick institution seeks to change the person’s whole identity.
Jonathan Haidt of NYU advises that if you want to create a thick institution, you should call attention to the traits people have in common, not the ones that set them apart. Second, exploit synchrony. Have people sing or play or move together. Third, create healthy competition among teams, not individuals. People fight and sacrifice more for their buddies than for an abstraction, so embed people in team relationships.
Thick institutions tear you down in order to build you up. They enmesh you within long traditions and sacred customs that seem archaic a lot of the time. They ask you to bury your own identity in the collective identity. They point to an ideal that is far in the distance and can’t be achieved in a single lifetime.
The secret of life, the sculptor Henry Moore once said, is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of every day for the rest of your life. And the most important thing is, it must be something you cannot possibly do.
The first mountain is the individualist worldview, which puts the desires of the ego at the center. The second mountain is what you might call the relationalist worldview, which puts relation, commitment, and the desires of the heart and soul at the center.
Conclusion: The Relationalist Manifesto
If we as a society respond to the excesses of I’m Free to Be Myself with an era of Revert to Tribe, then the twenty-first century will be a time of conflict and violence that will make the twentieth look like child’s play.
There is another way to find belonging. There is another way to find meaning and purpose. There is another vision of a healthy society. It is through relationalism.
Hyper-individualism, the reigning ethos of our day, is a system of morals, feelings, ideas, and practices based on the idea that the journey through life is an individual journey, that the goals of life are individual happiness, authenticity, self-actualization, and self-sufficiency.
It is a system built upon the egoistic drives within each of us. These are the self-interested drives the desire to excel; to make a mark in the world; to rise in wealth, power, and status; to win victories and be better than others.
longings of the heart and soul: the desire to live in loving interdependence with others, the yearning to live in service of some ideal, the yearning to surrender to a greater good.
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