“The Tale of Two Mountains”        (*From; The Moral Peril of Meritocracy, by David Brooks)

Matt 16:21-26

David Brooks wrote a column titled, The Moral Peril of Meritocracy,

which opened up, for me, a new of thinking about my life. I hope this might be helpful to you too.

I am going to quote quite frequently from his article.

He begins by saying;

“Many of the people I admire lead lives that have a two-mountain shape. They got out of school, began their career, started a family and identified the mountain they thought they were meant to climb — I’m going to be an entrepreneur, a doctor, a cop. They did the things society encourages us to do, like make a mark, become successful, buy a home, raise a family, pursue happiness.

People on the first mountain spend a lot of time on reputation management. They ask: What do people think of me? Where do I rank? They’re trying to win the victories the ego enjoys.

These hustling years are also powerfully shaped by our individualistic and meritocratic culture. People operate under this assumption: I can make myself happy. If I achieve excellence, lose more weight, follow this self-improvement technique, fulfillment will follow.

But in the lives of the people I’m talking about — the ones I really admire — something happened that interrupted the linear existence they had imagined for themselves. Something happened that exposed the problem with living according to individualistic, meritocratic values.

Some of them achieved success and found it unsatisfying. They figured there must be more to life, some higher purpose. Others failed. They lost their job or endured some scandal. Suddenly they were falling, not climbing, and their whole identity was in peril. Yet another group of people got hit sideways by something that wasn’t part of the original plan. They had a cancer scare or suffered the loss of a child. These tragedies made the first-mountain victories seem, well, not so important.

Life had thrown them into the valley, as it throws most of us into the valley at one point or another. They were suffering and adrift.

Some people are broken by this kind of pain and grief. They seem to get smaller and more afraid, and never recover. They get angry, resentful and tribal.

But other people are broken open. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that suffering upends the normal patterns of life and reminds you that you are not who you thought you were. The basement of your soul is much deeper than you knew. Some people look into the hidden depths of themselves and they realize that success won’t fill those spaces. Only a spiritual life and unconditional love from family and friends will do. They realize how lucky they are. They are down in the valley, but their health is O.K.; they’re not financially destroyed; they’re about to be dragged on an adventure that will leave them transformed.

They realize that while our educational system generally prepares us for climbing this or that mountain, your life is actually defined by how you make use of your moment of greatest adversity.”[1]

End of quote.

So, perhaps you may recognize part of the malady of our times. I find the image of two mountains very compelling.

The one mountain we climb feeds the ego seeking our happiness and worth in our accomplishments.


Jesus speaks of a second mountain or option we can choose. One that will not leave us disillusioned when we take it on. Jesus said it in these words;


“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 16:24-25)

What is this “cross” Jesus refers to and why should one want to “lose your life”?

Jesus is saying to those whom he loved that to try and live the life—or in David Brooks words, “climb the mountain” where the ego determines our actions and happiness we will never find true fulfillment.

The cross, Jesus refers to, is the “shedding [of] the ego and [the] dissolving the self”

Brooks says; “(In contrast to those on the first mountain who’s commitment is to acquisition) the person on the second mountain is making commitments. People who have made a commitment to a town, a person, an institution or a cause have cast their lot and burned the bridges behind them. They have made a promise without expecting a return. They are all in.”

To give up life on the first mountain and embracing life on the second mountain we chose, as followers of Jesus, to live a life of commitment to something of mush greater value. Second mountain people, Brooks says, are recognizable.

“[First mountain people] have an ultimate allegiance to self; …[second mountain people have] an ultimate allegiance to some commitment…In some organizations, people are there to serve their individual self-interests — draw a salary. But other organizations demand that you surrender to a shared cause and so change your very identity.”

Jesus says, “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”

This, dear friends, is not just a caution on how we choose to live our lives but it is also an invitation to us to climb down the first mountain, if that is where we are stuck today, and try the second mountain.

May we find our own mountain. The mountain where God’s presence illuminates our life. Amen.

[1] Our individualistic culture inflames the ego and numbs the spirit. Failure teaches us who we are. David Brooks, The Moral Peril of Meritocracy, April 6, 2019. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.”