David Brooks— which … I can’t believe I’m starting a post with his name and who, by the way, is a reliably reactionary moralist, utterly smug and smarmy in his elitist concern-trolling and gentle prodding against inclusion and equity — has written exactly two excellent essays in his canon at The New York Times. Truly: The Moral Bucket List, and The Moral Peril of Meritocracy.
In these two columns, Brooks delineates between two sets of virtues, two different ways: The “resume” vs the “eulogy”, and the first vs second “mountain”s.
He professes a kind of spiritual and moral re-prioritization of the soul — a realignment of our guide-stars. As I read them, they furthered my thinking: what constitutes a life well lived?
I spent the first 33 years of my life ascending the first mountain. It was a fractious ascent filled with ups, downs, falls, missteps and mistakes. I tried to find a career, crawl out of financial peril, meet someone I could marry and start a family with, and generally attempt to check off every arbitrary goal family and society assigned me.
As my stock peaked in the spring of 2016, I felt a tinge of emptiness. I had most everything I wanted, yet did not feel fulfilled. I began to openly worry about making a good life partner, being “enough,” finding my “calling,” and leaving a mark — yet I was in no real mental or emotional shape to do this, and my worry descended into madness, my affinity for alcohol descended into an increasingly furious binge-drinking bender.
By summer 2017, my predisposition for anxious attachment torpedoed my relationship, and my drinking reached unfathomable depths. I was lonely and aimless — and, candidly, kind of a trash human being. I was infatuated with thrill, sex, hedonism, escape. And so I decided to press pause on drinking to let the cloud-cover clear.
I began reading, studying and writing a lot — philosophy, religious texts, ethereal self-help manifestos — to understand what comes next. When I looked inward, I realized that to become my fullest, truest self, I needed to reach outward. Not for validation or acclaim, but to give something back — to pay something forward — and that would require deep internal work, processing, and self-iteration. We cannot go from raging inferno to warm, gentle breeze until we put the fires out in our own selves.
I still remember the day I stopped setting goals. Not because I stopped wanting to become things, but because I needed new ones. I needed new magnetic poles to find my way forward.
As I thought, felt, wrote and worked, I edged closer to the base of the second mountain. It was time to live for the legacy, and embody the eulogy.
After intense search, endless introspection, intentional action and a cursory poll of the audience, I found what’s worth living for.
There are seven stars worth chasing. Seven selves to become. I call these the “7 Noble Pursuits.” These are the elements, I believe, of a life well lived. Your mileage may vary … I give these for you to consider — not to take as gospel. (Unless you want to.)
When your body dies, you die. Even if you believe in an afterlife, or in reincarnation, you shall never assume the same form you take here on Earth at this coordinate in space-time. Your health will, eventually, fail you. It’s incumbent upon yourself to take care of the vessel that harbors your soul. Eat well. Move often. Go easy on the vices. Take care of your mind and body, and your spirit will require less heavy lifting.
This is your inner light. It’s the sun that shines through when the cloud cover clears. You find it in moments of action and novelty, connection and capability. When you create, learn, experience and share. It is the thrill and happiness that requires no reward, no validation to receive. It’s not an end, so much as it is a beginning. It is the smile that saves humanity. It is the cosmic radiance with which you were endowed. The one that demons, stresses, pressures and evil try to stamp out to stop you from feeling.
This is your inner calm. The subsiding of the tempest. The recession of the raging wind. You find it through practice, processing and intentional relaxation. You can find it in nature, but you also nurture it yourself: by tidying up, taking care of your mind and your heart, saying thank you, forgiving others, accepting what has passed and who you are, staying genuinely true to yourself and aligning with your moral standards. The more simply you can live, the more complete you can feel.
It is an unbroken, multi-nodal dialogue between you and your surroundings. The ebb and flow of ideas, empathy, laughter, valor and kindness. You build it by valuing life, truly seeing whole people, cultivating connections through compassion and love, opening yourself up through vulnerability, attaching securely to other secure people, finding belonging and shepherding it for others by striving for equality. A meal shared. A warm embrace. An act of service. A healthy romantic relationship, and sturdy friendships with fellow humans and family.
If your self was a car, finding your purpose is both a function of the gas pedal and the steering wheel. Passion is the pedal. Integrity is the wheel. It takes curiosity, a sense of adventure, a genuine lust for — and love of — life. You can find it in other people, places and things — by opening doors and holding them open for others. When you find your purpose, you can feel it: the engine hums, the cylinders fire, the steering engages, the braking is effortless, the handling flawless. The drive is what keeps you alive.
Change is inevitable, but progress is intentional. Wisdom is more than just the accumulation of knowledge, it is the thoughtful and enlightened application of it. Guided by intellectual humility, it is a relentless and ever-proliferating quest for a grand sense of perspective, a distillation of capital-t truth and all the lower-case truths that take you there. Then, and only then, after growing sage in our hearts and minds, can we properly dispense justice and judgment, teach others with confidence, understand and unlock the mysteries of the cosmos.
We are all born as ice — heavy and locked. Only vapor — warm and light — is truly independent. This sublimation starts from within: by conquering the demons that keep us paralyzed, small and dependent; by acquiring enough capital to survive, we melt our constraints. We achieve stability. From there, to escape our liquid selves, we must fight for prosperity: investing our time and finances wisely, and investing in others or society at large. The salvation of the self does not exist in a vacuum. It starts within, but can only end with a concerted effort to remove barriers to access, and make the impossible possible, then the possible real. Each droplet floating, wandering as it wishes. Expression is liberation.
We often regard virtue as inconspicuous consumption: we shell out exorbitant sums of capital to demonstrate our wellness, mindfulness and worldliness. Yet, I believe virtue to be far simpler (and more cost-effective!) than even that. It is an IOU. An intentional investment of our time and attention in three cardinal directions:
- Inward (health, joy and peace)
- Outward (communion, purpose)
- Upward (wisdom, freedom)
Clarity, care and courage are the virtues that take us to those places. They get us comfortable with ourselves, with other people, with risk, and with our inevitable demise. We don’t have long left to wander around this rock, and the resume is a ruse — a bullet-pointed list of accomplishments and accolades which no one will talk about when you’re lowered into the ground.
I’ll see you on the second mountain. I have no idea when I’ll see the summit, but if you get there first, please pass your compass off on your way down. I’ll need new guide-stars worth chasing, and new selves yet to become.
This article was published by P.S. I Love You, a publication on Medium. Relationships now.