First mountain people are divided, alienated and insufficient. They suffer from “a rot” in their “moral and cultural foundations” that is mirrored by “the rot we see in our politics.” Second mountain people, having given themselves away, lead lives of deep commitment. For them, happiness is good but joy is better. “Happiness comes from accomplishments; joy comes from offering gifts. Happiness fades; we get used to the things that used to make us happy. Joy doesn’t fade. To live with joy is to live with wonder, gratitude and hope. People who are on the second mountain have been transformed. They are deeply committed. The outpouring of love has become a steady force.”
This is beautiful stuff. In admitting to his failure as a husband, Brooks tantalizes with a promise to chronicle his own unsteady recovery. In this, he only partially delivers. As soon as he alludes to the problems in his marriage he offers a disclaimer. “My ex-wife and I have an agreement that we don’t talk about our marriage and divorce in public,” he writes. In what was initially a mea culpa, he offers the barest of apologies. “I prioritize time over people, productivity over relationship.”
But something severe must have happened to throw Brooks into the dark night of his soul. In 2013, his marriage of 27 years dissolved. He moved into an apartment. He missed his children, was lonely, ashamed and adrift. To set himself right, “having failed at commitment,” he decided to write about people who “do commitments well.” He does this with a feel for those who, rather than succumbing to their own personal traumas, turn toward helping others and, in so doing, renew the lost sense of community that afflicts an America whose churches, neighborhoods, mores and cultural institutions are all in decline. What follows reads, unfortunately, like one long commencement address.
Inspirational quotes from the likes of C.S. Lewis, Alain de Botton, Viktor Frankl, David Foster Wallace, Carl Jung, E.O. Wilson, William James and Abraham Lincoln recur while we hear about people who courageously send their children to public school and invite their neighbors over for dinner. Brooks believes in the ground-up remaking of community rather than in top-down government-inspired reform. He faults the culture’s freewheeling encouragement of rampant individualism for most of society’s ills and puts this blame squarely on “free-to-be-you-and-me” liberalism. His argument, inspiring in his introduction, quickly becomes repetitive and tendentious. He has a penchant for lists (the four commitments, the 10 personality traits of a suitable marriage partner, the six layers of desire), for italicized Greek and Hebrew words (chessed: Hebrew for loving kindness) and for the kinds of stories politicians often cite in proclaiming what they take to be the enduring goodness of their version of real Americans.
Through all of this we wonder, what about his own journey to faith? What really happened to get him there? Will his agreement with his ex-wife stop him from showing his face?