This remarkable article from the NYT raises a toast to those who first fail in the great capitalist race to become rich & famous but then lift themselves up to imbue their own lives and that of others with more meaning. These are people whose lives have been lived on what the author calls “two mountains”.
“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.”
Sounds familiar? But then comes the interesting twist in the article: “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.”
This crisis separates the women from the girls so to speak. “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.”
So how do our heroes and heroines find redemption?
“First, there has to be a period of solitude, in the wilderness, where self-reflection can occur…The self-centered voice of the ego has to be quieted before a person is capable of freely giving and receiving love.
Then there is contact with the heart and soul — through prayer, meditation, writing, whatever it is that puts you in contact with your deepest desires….In the wilderness the desire for esteem is stripped away and bigger desires are made visible: the desires of the heart (to live in loving connection with others) and the desires of the soul (the yearning to serve some transcendent ideal and to be sanctified by that service).
When people are broken open in this way, they are more sensitive to the pains and joys of the world. They realize: Oh, that first mountain wasn’t my mountain. I am ready for a larger journey.”
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