Note: While reading a book whenever I come across something interesting, I highlight it on my Kindle. Later I turn those highlights into a blogpost. It is not a complete summary of the book. These are my notes which I intend to go back to later. Let’s start!

  • If the first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self, the second mountain is about shedding the ego and losing the self. If the first mountain is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contribution. If the first mountain is elitist—moving up—the second mountain is egalitarian—planting yourself amid those who need, and walking arm in arm with them.  
  • People on the second mountain have made strong commitments to one or all of these four things: A vocation, A spouse and family, A philosophy, or faith, A community. A commitment is making a promise to something without expecting a reward.  
  • In all forms of happiness we feel good, elated, uplifted. But the word “happiness” can mean a lot of different things. So it’s important to make a distinction between happiness and joy. What’s the difference? Happiness involves a victory for the self, an expansion of self. Happiness comes as we move toward our goals, when things go our way. You get a big promotion. You graduate from college. Your team wins the Super Bowl. You have a delicious meal. Happiness often has to do with some success, some new ability, or some heightened sensual pleasure. Joy tends to involve some transcendence of self. It’s when the skin barrier between you and some other person or entity fades away and you feel fused together. Joy is present when mother and baby are gazing adoringly into each other’s eyes, when a hiker is overwhelmed by beauty in the woods and feels at one with nature, when a gaggle of friends are dancing deliriously in unison.  
  • Joy often involves self-forgetting.

  • Happiness is what we aim for on the first mountain. Joy is a by-product of living on the second mountain.  
  • We can help create happiness, but we are seized by joy. We are pleased by happiness, but we are transformed by joy. When we experience joy we often feel we have glimpsed into a deeper and truer layer of reality. A narcissist can be happy, but a narcissist can never be joyful, because the surrender of self is the precise thing a narcissist can’t do. A narcissist can’t even conceive of joy.

  • Political freedom is great. But personal, social, and emotional freedom—when it becomes an ultimate end—absolutely sucks. It leads to a random, busy life with no discernible direction, no firm foundation, and in which, as Marx put it, all that’s solid melts to air. It turns out that freedom isn’t an ocean you want to spend your life in. Freedom is a river you want to get across so you can plant yourself on the other side—and fully commit to something.

  • When you have nothing but your identity and job title to rest on, then you find yourself constantly comparing yourself to others. You are haunted by your conception of yourself. People who live in this way imagine that there are other people who are enjoying career splendor and private joy. That loser in college who did nothing but watch TV is now a big movie producer; that quiet guy in the training program is now a billionaire hedge fund manager. What does it profit a man to sell his own soul if others are selling theirs and getting more for it?

  • True loneliness, Nabeelah Jaffer writes, is not only solitude; it is also a sort of spiritual emptiness, the loss of faith in oneself to come up with answers, “the loss of one’s own self.” It is a feeling of “uprootedness and superfluousness.” Jaffer posits that many militants join the Islamic State because they have no place where they can experience a sense of belonging, and at least IS gives them that. It gives them a way to be a martyr, a hero.

  • “Trying to live someone else’s life, or to live by an abstract norm, will invariably fail—and even do great damage.” You don’t find your vocation through an act of taking charge. “Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I would like it to be about.” I have a friend named Pete Wehner who is an amazing listener. I’ll describe some problem to him, and he’ll ask me some questions. There comes a moment in the conversation, after he’s asked four or five questions, when I expect him to start offering his opinions and recommendations. But then he surprises me and asks six or eight more questions, before eventually offering counsel or advice. Real listening, whether to others or yourself, involves that unexpected extra round of questions, stretching the asking beyond what feels natural. Listening to your life means having patience. Many of us confront most of life with a prematurely evaluating attitude. We have a natural tendency to make up our mind instantly, the moment we encounter something. The problem is that once we’ve filed something away with a judgment—even our very selves—we stop seeing it in all its complexity. The wilderness teaches negative capability, the ability to rest in uncertainty, to not jump to premature conclusions. Listening to life means asking, What have I done well? What have I done poorly? What do I do when I’m not being paid or rewarded? Were there times when I put on faces that other people wanted me to wear, or that I thought other people wanted me to wear? When you’re in the wilderness, a better version of yourself has a tendency to emerge. “When I venture into wilderness, I’m surprised by how much I enjoy my own company,” Belden Lane writes. “The person I travel with there isn’t worried about his performance. He sheds the polished persona he tries so often to project to others. Scribbling in my journal under the shade of a pin oak atop Bell Mountain, I’m happy as a lark. I want to be the person that I am when I’m alone in wilderness.” This is the beginning of an important revelation.   
  • A commitment is a promise made from love. A commitment is making a promise to something without expecting a return—out of sheer lovingness. There may be a psychic return on a good marriage, or from a commitment to a political cause, or from making music, but that is not why one makes it or why one does it. If a couple is actually in love, and you pull them aside and tell them that this love probably doesn’t make sense and they should forsake it, you will almost certainly not persuade them. They’d rather be in turmoil with each other than in tranquility alone.

  • In 1946, George Orwell published a brilliant essay called “Why I Write” about his vocation as a novelist and essayist. In it, he tries to puncture a lot of the pious and pretentious writing about writing. With the sense of guilt that is never far from the surface in his work, Orwell wants to expose and maybe shock you with his own low and selfish motives. He writes, he says, for four basic reasons. First, sheer egoism. The desire to seem clever and to get talked about. Second, aesthetic enthusiasm. The pleasure he gets from playing with sentences and words. But Orwell is nothing if not honest. And he has to admit that there are higher motives as well. Third, then, is the “historic impulse,” the desire for understanding. The desire to see things as they are and find out true facts. Fourth, his political purpose. The desire to push the world in a certain direction, and to alter people’s ideas of what sort of society they should strive for.  
  • In the vocation mentality, you’re not living on the ego level of your consciousness—working because the job pays well or makes life convenient. You’re down in the substrate. Some activity or some injustice has called to the deepest level of your nature and demanded an active response. Carl Jung called a vocation “an irrational factor that destines a man to emancipate himself from the herd and from its well-worn paths….Anyone with a vocation hears the voice of the inner man: He is called.”

  • The summons to vocation is a very holy thing. It feels mystical, like a call from deep to deep. But then the messy way it happens in actual lives doesn’t feel holy at all; just confusing and screwed up.

  • Annunciation moment: That’s the moment when something sparks an interest, or casts a spell, and arouses a desire that somehow prefigures much of what comes after in a life, both the delights and the challenges. Most days pass in an unmemorable flow, but, every once in a while, a new passion is silently conceived. Something delights you and you are forever after entranced by that fascinating thing. Wilson found nature at age seven and has spent the ensuing seven decades studying it, becoming one of the most prominent scientists in the world.  
  • Let’s say you had the chance to become a vampire. With one magical bite you would gain immortality, superhuman strength, and a life of glamorous intensity. You’d have all sorts of new skills. You could fly around at night. You wouldn’t even have to drink human blood; you could get some donated cow’s blood. Friends who have undergone the experience say it is incredible. They claim that as vampires they experience the world in new ways they couldn’t have even have imagined back when they were human. Would you do it? Would you consent to receive that life-altering bite, knowing that once changed you could never go back? The difficulty of the choice is that you have to use your human self to try to guess if you would enjoy being a vampire self. Becoming a vampire is what the philosopher L. A. Paul calls a “transformative choice.” This is the sort of choice that changes who you are. Life is filled with vampire problems. Marriage turns you into a different person. Having kids changes who you are and what you want. So does emigrating to a new country, converting to a different religion, going to med school, joining the Marines, changing careers, and deciding on where to live. Every time you make a commitment to something big, you are making a transformational choice. All decisions involve a large measure of uncertainty about the future. What makes transformational choices especially tough is that you don’t know what your transformed self will be like or will want, after the vagaries of life begin to have their effects. Things that seem sweet now may seem disgusting to the new you. New sorts of misery and joy, none of which you’ve experienced so far, may be the meat and potatoes of your future existence. It’s really hard to know your current self, but it’s pretty well impossible to know what your future transformed self will be like. You can’t rationally think through this problem, because you have no data about the desires of the transformed you.

  • If you go to the career-advice gurus to find your vocation, the question many will put at the center of your search is “What is my talent?” One of the central preoccupations in the career-advice world is helping people identify strengths and then helping them figure out how to exploit them. One of the implications here is that in selecting a career path, talent should trump interest. If you are really interested in art but you’re not actually that good at it, you’ll wind up at some boring design job for a company you don’t care about at the bottom of the profession. When making a vocational choice ask, What am I talented at? That may be fine if you’re willing to settle for something meager like a career. But if you are trying to discern your vocation, the right question is not What am I good at? It’s the harder questions: What am I motivated to do? What activity do I love so much that I’m going to keep getting better at it for the next many decades? What do I desire so much that it captures me at the depth of my being? In choosing a vocation, it’s precisely wrong to say that talent should trump interest. Interest multiplies talent and is in most cases more important than talent. The crucial terrain to be explored in any vocation search is the terrain of your heart and soul, your long-term motivation. Knowledge is plentiful; motivation is scarce.

  • Robert Greene gets at the core truth in his book Mastery: “Your emotional commitment to what you are doing will be translated directly into your work. If you go at your work with half a heart, it will show in the lackluster results and in the laggard way in which you reach the end.”

  • The best advice I’ve heard for people in search of a vocation is to say yes to everything. Say yes to every opportunity that comes along, because you never know what will lead to what. Have a bias toward action. Think of yourself as a fish that is hoping to get caught. Go out there among the fishhooks. Simple questions help you locate your delight. What do I enjoy talking about? If it’s motorcycles, maybe your work is mechanics. When have I felt most needed? If it was protecting your country as a soldier, maybe your vocation is in law enforcement. What pains am I willing to tolerate? If you’re willing to tolerate the misery of rejection, you must have sufficient love of theater to go into acting. Or there’s Casey Gerald’s question: What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Fear is a pretty good GPS system; it tells you where you true desires are, even if they are on the far side of social disapproval. 

  • The world is full of problems, but very few are the problems you are meant to address. When you feel the tug of such a moment, Swaniker advises, ask three big questions: First, Is it big enough? Those who have been fortunate to receive a good education, who are healthy, and have had great work experiences should not be solving small problems. If you were born lucky, you should solve big problems. Second, “Am I uniquely positioned…to make this happen?” Look back on the experiences you have had. Have they prepared you for this specific mission? Third, “Am I truly passionate?” Does the issue generate obsessive thinking? Does it keep you up at night? If your answer to each question is not a resounding yes, Swaniker advises, you should ignore that idea.

  • A job is a way of making a living, but work is a particular way of being needed, of fulfilling the responsibility that life has placed before you. Martin Luther King, Jr., once advised that your work should have length—something you get better at over a lifetime. It should have breadth—it should touch many other people. And it should have height—it should put you in service to some ideal and satisfy the soul’s yearning for righteousness.

  • All real work requires a dedication to engage in deliberate practice, the willingness to do the boring things over and over again, just to master a skill. To teach himself to write, Benjamin Franklin took the essays in The Spectator, the leading magazine of his day, and translated them into poetry. Then he took his poems and translated them back into prose. Then he analyzed how his final work was inferior to the original Spectator essays.

  • It turns out he didn’t really have to go out and find his fans. If he built a landscape about his own particular home, they would come to him. It makes you appreciate the tremendous power of the particular. If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct tradition, if your concerns are expressed through a specific imaginative landscape, you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up on the far-flung networks of eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity At the grand level, marriage means offering love, respect, and safety, but day to day, there are never-ending small gestures of tact and consideration, in which you show you understand her moods, you cherish his presence, that this other person is the center of your world. At the end of the day there is the brutal grinding effort of surrendering the ego to the altar of marriage, giving up part of yourself, the desires you have, for the larger union.

  • Passion peaks among the young, but marriage is the thing that peaks in old age. What really defines the happy marriage is the completeness of a couple who have been together for decades.

  • On the first mountain, the emphasis is on the unencumbered self, individual accomplishment, creating a society in which everyone is free to be themselves. This is a fluid society, and over the short term a productive society, but it is a thin society. It is a society in which people are only lightly attached to each other and to their institutions. The second-mountain society is a thick society. The organizations and communities in that society leave a mark. And so I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes an organization thick or thin. The thick communities have a distinct culture—the way the University of Chicago, Morehouse College, the U.S. Marine Corps do. A thick institution is not trying to serve its people instrumentally, to give them a degree or to simply help them earn a salary. A thick institution seeks to change the person’s whole identity. It engages the whole person: head, hands, heart, and soul. Thick institutions have a physical location, often cramped, where members meet face-to-face on a regular basis, such as a dinner table or a packed gym or an assembly hall. Such institutions have a set of collective rituals—fasting or reciting some creed in unison or standing in formation. They have shared tasks, which often involve members closely watching one another, the way hockey teammates have to observe one another on the ice. In such institutions people occasionally sleep overnight in the same retreat center or facility, so that everybody can see each other’s real self, before makeup and after dinner.

  • The first mountain is the individualist worldview, which puts the desires of the ego at the center. The second mountain is what you might call the relationalist worldview, which puts relation, commitment, and the desires of the heart and soul at the center.

  • Life is not a solitary journey. It is building a home together. It is a process of being formed by attachments and then forming attachments in turn. It is a great chain of generations passing down gifts to one another.

  • The hyper-individualist sees society as a collection of individuals who contract with one another. The relationalist sees society as a web of connections that in many ways precedes choice. A hyper-individualist sees the individual as a self-sufficient unit; the relationalist says, a person is a node in a network, a personality is a movement toward others.  
  • As adults, we measure our lives by the quality of our relationships and the quality of our service to those relationships. Life is a qualitative endeavor, not a quantitative one. It’s not how many, but how thick and how deep. Defining what a quality relationship looks like is a central task of any moral ecology.  
  • The best adult life is lived by making commitments and staying faithful to those commitments: commitments to a vocation, to a family, to a philosophy or faith, to a community. Adult life is about making promises to others, being faithful to those promises. The beautiful life is found in the mutual giving of unconditional gifts.

  • Relationalism is a middle way between hyper-individualism and collectivism. The former detaches the person from all deep connection. The latter obliterates the person within the group, and sees groups as faceless herds. The relationalist sees each person as a node in a thick and enchanted web of warm commitments. She seeks to build a neighborhood, nation, and world of diverse and creative people who have made commitments in a flowering of different ways, who are nonetheless bound together by sacred chords.

  • A child is born with both ego and heart and soul on full display. But for many people, around adolescence, the ego begins to swell, and the heart and soul recede. People at this age need to establish an identity, to carve a self. Meanwhile, our society tells adolescent boys to bury their emotions and become men. It tells little girls that if they reveal the true depths of themselves, nobody will like them. Our public culture normalizes selfishness, rationalizes egoism, and covers over and renders us inarticulate about the deeper longings of the heart and soul. But eventually most people realize that something is missing in the self-interested life. They achieve worldly success and find it unsatisfying. Or perhaps they have fallen in love, or been loved in a way that plows open the crusty topsoil of life and reveals the true personality down below. Or perhaps they endure a period of failure, suffering, or grief that carves through the surface and reveals the vast depths underneath. One way or another, people get introduced to the full depths of themselves, the full amplitude of life. They realize that only emotional, moral, and spiritual food can provide the nourishment they crave. When a person has undergone one of these experiences, which can happen at any age, she is no longer just an individual; she has become a person. Her whole personhood is alive and engaged. She has discovered, down at the substrate, her infinite ability to care. Relationalism guides us as we undertake this personal transformation, surpassing the desires of the ego and taking on a bigger journey. The movement toward becoming a person is downward and then outward: To peer deeper into ourselves where we find the yearnings for others, and then outward in relationship toward the world. A person achieves self-mastery, Maritain wrote, for the purpose of self-giving. An individual who has become a person has staged a rebellion. She rebels against the individualistic ethos and all the systems of impersonalism. Society tells her to want independence, but she has declared her interdependence. Society says we live in a materialist reality, but she says we live in an enchanted reality. Society tells her to keep her options open, but she says, No, I will commit. I will root myself down. Society says, Try to rise above and be better than; she says, No, I will walk with, serve, and come in under. Society says, Cultivate with the self-interested side of your life; she says, No, I will cultivate the whole of myself. Life goes well only when you are living with the whole of yourself. The relationalist doesn’t walk away from the capitalist meritocracy, the systems of mainstream life. But she balances that worldview with a countervailing ethos that supplements, corrects, and ennobles. She walks in that world, with all its pleasures and achievements, but with a different spirit, a different approach, and different goals. She is communal where the world is too individual. She is more emotional when the world is too cognitive. She is moral when the world is too utilitarian.

  • The relationalist is not trying to dominate life by sheer willpower. He is not gripping the steering wheel and trying to strategize his life. He has made himself available. He has opened himself up so that he can hear a call and respond to a summons. He is asking, What is my responsibility here? When a person finds his high calling in life, it doesn’t feel like he has taken control; it feels like he has surrendered control. The most creative actions are those made in response to a summons. The summons often comes in the form of love. A person falls in love with her child, her husband, her neighborhood, her calling, or her God. And with that love comes an urge to make promises—to say, I will always love you. I will always serve you and be there for you. Life is a vale of promise making. Or a summons may come in the form of a need. There is some injustice, some societal wrong, that needs to be fixed. A person assumes responsibility—makes a promise to fight that fight and right that wrong. When a summons has been felt and a promise has been made, a commitment has been sealed. The life of a relationalist is defined by its commitments.  When a summons has been felt and a promise has been made, a commitment has been sealed. The life of a relationalist is defined by its commitments. The quality and fulfillment of her life will be defined by what she commits to and how she fulfills those commitments. A commitment is a promise made from love. A commitment is a promise made without expecting any return (though there will be returns aplenty). A committed relationship is a two-way promise. It is you throwing yourself wholeheartedly for another and another throwing himself wholeheartedly for you. The person makes his commitments maximal commitments. He doesn’t just have a career; he has a vocation. He doesn’t just have a contract marriage (What’s in it for me?). He has a covenantal marriage (I live and die for you). He doesn’t just have opinions. He submits to a creed. He doesn’t just live in a place. He helps build a community. Furthermore, he is not just committed to this abstract notion of “community.” He is committed to a specific community, to a specific person, to a specific creed—things grounded in particular times and places. By committing and living up to the daily obligations of his commitments, the person integrates himself into a coherent whole. Commitments organize the hours and the days of a life. A committed person achieves consistency across time. His character is built through the habitual acts of service to the people he loves. His character is built by being the humble recipient of other people’s gifts and thus acknowledging his own dependency. A contract gets you benefits, but a commitment transforms who you are. Relationalists prioritize those actions that deepen commitment, build relation, and enhance human dignity: giving, storytelling, dance, singing, common projects, gathering, dining, ritual, deep conversation, common prayer, forgiveness, creating beauty, mutual comfort in times of sadness and threat, mutual labor for the common good. A committed life involves some common struggles. It is, for example, a constant struggle to see people at their full depths. In the business of daily life there is the constant temptation to see the other person as an object and not a whole. There is the constant temptation to label and generalize. There is the constant temptation to reduce people to data and to see them as data points. You can count apples with data. You can track human behavior in the mass. But there is something that is unique and irreplaceable

  • It is, for example, a constant struggle to see people at their full depths. In the business of daily life there is the constant temptation to see the other person as an object and not a whole. There is the constant temptation to label and generalize. There is the constant temptation to reduce people to data and to see them as data points. You can count apples with data. You can track human behavior in the mass. But there is something that is unique and irreplaceable about each person that data cannot see. The relationalist tries to see each individual as a whole person—as a body, mind, heart, and soul. There is the constant struggle to communicate well. At every moment there is either a depth of communication or a shallowness of communication. The relationalist seeks conditions that will make communication deep and pure. This is hard because there’s something in ourselves that eludes our ability to communicate it. There is something proper about modesty and the slow unveiling of one’s self. To achieve I–Thou communication, even to glimpse it, the relationalist sits patiently as vulnerabilities are gradually revealed. She offers safety and respect. Sometimes what is deepest is related in the form of myth, story, and music. When communication fails or is corrupted, the French philosopher Emmanuel Mounier says, I suffer a loss of myself. Madness and misery is a severance of communication with others. There is the constant struggle to live as an effective giver and receiver of gifts. There are millions of people around us whose lives are defined by generosity and service. Personal being, Mounier continues, is essentially generous. But our society does not teach us how to be an effective giver of gifts. The schools don’t emphasize it. The popular culture is confused about it. It is a constant struggle to see life through a moral lens. The practical workaday world primes the utilitarian lens. Consumerism calls forth a self that is oriented around material pleasure. Money has an anonymous power and tends to render the person on the other side of a transaction invisible. Workplace rivalries and modern politics require armored individuals—human tanks with no exposure. The effort to fight the utilitarian lens and see daily life through a moral lens is a hard and never-ending struggle. These struggles are not against other people. The line between ego and soul runs down the middle of every person. Most of us, from time to time, buy into a workaholic ethos that leaves us with little time for relationship. Most of us, from time to time, hue to a code of privacy that prevents us from actually knowing the people who live right nearby. Most of us live with technology that aims to reduce friction and maximize efficiency. Relationship, though, is inherently sticky and inefficient. Most of us, daily, slip back into self-absorption, succumb to the hunger for status, and have to recognize that and dive back into relation. The relationalist worldview is not about the forces of good conquering the forces of evil. It’s always a competition between partial truths. It’s always an evolving conversation between self and society. It’s always balancing tensions and trying to live life in graceful balance. The relational life is a challenging life but ultimately it’s a joyful life, because it is enmeshed in affection and crowned with moral joy.

  • As T. S. Eliot observed, the chief illusion of modern political activity is the belief that you can build a system so perfect that the people in it do not have to be good. The reality is that democracy and the economy rest upon a foundation, which is society. A society is a system of relationships. If there is no trust at the foundations of society, if there is no goodness, care, or faithfulness, relationships crumble, and the market and the state crash to pieces. If there are no shared norms of right and wrong, no sense of common attachments, then the people in the market and the state will rip one another to shreds as they vie for power and money. Society and culture are prior to and more important than politics or the market. The health of society depends on voluntary unselfishness. In this day and age, our primary problems are at the level of the foundations. They are at the level of the system of relationships. Our society has been spiraling to ever-higher levels of distrust, ever-higher levels of unknowing and alienation. One bad action breeds another. One escalation of hostility breeds another. The call of relationalism is to usher in a social transformation by reweaving the fabric of reciprocity and trust, to build a society, as Dorothy Day put it, in which it is easier to be good. The social fabric is not woven by leaders from above. It is woven at every level, through a million caring actions, from one person to another. It is woven by people fulfilling their roles as good friends, neighbors, and citizens. Whenever I treat another person as if he were an object, I’ve ripped the social fabric. When I treat another person as an infinite soul, I have woven the social fabric. Whenever I lie, abuse, stereotype, or traumatize a person, I have ripped the fabric. Whenever I see someone truly, and make them feel known, I have woven the fabric. Whenever I accuse someone of corruption without evidence, I have ripped the social fabric. Whenever I disagree without maligning motives, I have woven it. The social fabric is created through an infinity of small moral acts, and it can be destroyed by a series of immoral ones. Personal transformation and social transformation happen simultaneously. When you reach out and build community, you nourish yourself. The ultimate faith of relationalism is that we are all united at the deepest levels. At the surface we have our glorious diversity. But at the substrate there is a commonality that no amount of hostility can ever fully extinguish, that no amount of division can ever fully sunder.

  • Relationships do not scale. They have to be built one at a time, through patience and forbearance. But norms do scale. When people in a community cultivate caring relationships, and do so repeatedly in a way that gets communicated to others, then norms are established. Trustworthy action is admired; empathy is celebrated. Cruelty is punished and ostracized. Neighborliness becomes the default state. An emergent system, a culture, has been created that subtly guides all the members in certain directions. When you create a norm through the repeated performance of some good action, you have created a new form of power. People within a moral ecology are given a million subtle nudges to either live up to their full dignity or sink to their base cravings. The moral ecology is the thing we build together through our daily decisions. Rebuilding society is not just get-togetherism—convening people in some intellectually or morally neutral way. There has to be a shift in moral culture, a shift in the definition of the good life people imagine together. The state has an important but incomplete role to play in this process. The state can provide services, but it cannot easily provide care. That is to say, the state can redistribute money to the poor, can build homeless shelters and day care centers. It can create the material platforms on which relationships can be built. But the state can’t create the intimate relationships that build a fully functioning person. That can only happen through habitual personal contact. It is only through relationships that we become neighbors, workers, citizens, and friends. A Declaration of Interdependence A good society is like a dense jungle. There are vines and intertwining branches. There are enmeshed root systems and connections across the canopy. There are monkeys playing at the treetops, the butterflies darting below. Every creature has a place in the great ecosystem. There is a gorgeous diversity and beauty and vitality. A good person leading a good life is a creature enmeshed in that jungle. A beautiful life is a planted life, attached but dynamic. A good life is a symbiotic life—serving others wholeheartedly and being served wholeheartedly in return. It is daily acts of loving-kindness, gentleness in reproach, forbearance after insult. It is an adventure of mutual care, building, and exploration. The crucial question is not, Who I am? but, Whose am I? Most of us get better at living as we go. There comes a moment, which may come early or later in life, when you realize what your life is actually about. You look across your life and review the moments when you felt more fully alive, at most your best self. They were usually moments when you were working with others in service of some ideal. That is the agency moment. That is the moment when you achieve clarity about what you should do and how you should live. That is the moment when the ego loses its grip. There is a sudden burst of energy that comes with freedom from the self-centered ego. Life becomes more driven and more gift. That is the moment when a life comes to a point. When you see people at that point, you realize they have an interior stronghold of values and devotions against which even the threat of death could not prevail. When you see people at that point, you see a generosity that radiates out into the world. You see people giving of themselves, not even in the grand ways, but just in the small favors and thoughtful considerations. This is how the jungle becomes thick and healthy. When you see a group of people in that state, you see not just individuals but a people, a community, a flourishing society, where people help one another, magnify one another’s talents, enjoy one another’s creativity, and rest in one another’s hospitality. When you see people at the point, you see people with a power that overcomes division and distrust. Distrust is a perversity. No one wants to live in a distrusting place, or be lonely. Distrust comes about because of our own failings of relationship. But love has a redemptive power, Martin Luther King argued. It has the power to transform individuals and break down distrust. If you love a person and keep loving a person, they may lash out at first, but eventually they will break under the power of your care. Division is healed not mostly by solving the bad, but by overwhelming the bad with the good. If you can maximize the number of good interactions between people, then the disagreements will rest in a bed of loving care, and the bad will have a tendency to take care of itself. When trust is restored, the heartbeat relaxes, people are joyful together. Joy is found on the far side of sacrificial service. It is found in giving yourself away. When you see that, you realize joy is not just a feeling, it is a moral outlook. It is a permanent state of thanksgiving and friendship, communion and solidarity. This is not an end to troubles and cares. Life doesn’t offer us utopia. But the self has shrunk back to its proper size. When relationships are tender, when commitments are strong, when communication is pure, when the wounds of life have been absorbed and the wrongs forgiven, people bend toward each other, intertwine with one another, and some mystical combustion happens. Love emerges between people out of nothing, as a pure flame. 

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