I’ve just started David Brook’s new book The Second Mountain – The Quest for a Moral Life. I’m not very far in, but I can tell that I’m going to savor this book like I did with Cal Newton’s Deep Work. Both speak to a need to go deeper, stay longer and do the work. More to come on deep work strategies another time.
In the Second Mountain, one term that captured my attention immediately was “acedia.” A centuries old concept, Brook’s summarizes acedia as the quieting of passion, a lack of care, sluggishness of the soul, an oven set on warm. I see this all around and within and I don’t like it nor am I willing to accept it as just being the way it is. We need to turn up the heat and focus on the right things.
Too many of our days are spent flying fast and furious on autopilot, going through the motions, checking the boxes, doing mediocre work quickly to merely keep up. Endless meetings, the bottomless cup of emails, deadlines that are ridiculous. And to what end? As Mahatma Gandhi so eloquently said, “There is more to life than simply increasing its speed.” Finding “the more” and meaning in life without doing more and more is the challenge. Less really is more, for real.
In our hyper-individualistic society, Brooks identifies four interrelated social crises:
1. The loneliness crisis – according to former surgeon general Vivek Murthy the most common pathology that he saw when he practiced medicine wasn’t heart disease or diabetes but loneliness;
2. Distrust – distrust in our institutions, government, neighbors - all earned to be sure but distrust breeds distrust and alienation which leads to more loneliness;
3. The Crisis of Meaning – loss of or never having a sense of purpose;
4. Tribalism – In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt found two things when she researched political fanatics – loneliness and spiritual emptiness.
Relationships, meaning and purpose are the main ingredients to a life well lived and without regret. And it requires work and even some angst along the way, but it’s worth it. Skimming the surface is not anywhere near enough or what we are called to do or become.
“Whether the valley is a personal one or a societal one or both, there’s a lot of suffering. Your enduring a season of pain, a season of feeling lost. This can be a period of soul-crushing anguish, but it can also be one of the most precious seasons of your life,” Brooks continues, “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.”
One of the best waiting “how-to” books is Sue Monk Kidd’s When the Heart Waits. “Crisis, change, all of the myriad of upheavals that blister the spirit and leave us groping – they aren’t voices simply of pain but also of creativity. And, if we would only listen, we might hear such times beckoning us to a season of waiting, to the place of fertile emptiness,” she says.
She describes the three inner passages of waiting – separation, transformation, and emergence. We naturally want to get to emergence before passing through the valley of separation and the mountain of transformation.
“An internal uprising could be as simple as a vague sense of restlessness, some floating disenchantment, a whispering but relentless voice that says, There has to be more than this. Why are you doing what you’re doing?” Monk Kidd articulates. She references Saint Simeon’s “attention to the heart” and that the primary aim of spiritual work is to guide us to the center of our being.
“The greatest accomplishment in life is to be what we are, which is God’s idea of what He wanted us to be when He brought us into being,” Thomas Keating states. We get comfortable and settle rather than venture out into the unfamiliar and as Virginia Satir said, “Most people prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.”
We don’t have to have everything figured out before we start and uncertainty is a vital part of transformation, trust and emergence. The path unfolds as we start walking down it, even if we don’t know the exact way. We can start without knowing the end right though the avenue of trial and error, the crossroads of failure and success and the merging of action and time.
The first place and only place to start this mission-critical journey is within. Our journey starts and ends right there. Ask questions, listen for the answers and rest in the waiting that’s required for growth and full bloom. Dare to go to depths that catch your breath, stop you in your complacent tracks and wakes you up to being fully present in each day.
Stop hitting the snooze alarm and get up. While we will have moments of acedia, never let it win your life. Be bold, colorful and on your purpose.