There was banging at the front door.
It was loud and frantic. My immediate thought was danger – someone is drunk and pounding to get my attention. But as I approached, tentatively, I saw my teenage neighbour in need of help. Her father had collapsed suddenly and needed CPR.
My wife and I ran next door and did our best to assist, but I lost my neighbour that night. We tried compressions for about ten minutes before a team of paramedics took over. It was too late.
The death of my closest friend has shaken my world. More than a neighbour, he was like a brother to me. For context, we purchased land together more than a decade ago, built two houses and created an intentional community. Our families have shared land, chooks, fruit trees, and raised each other’s children, sharing a meal together once a week for more than a decade.
There is never a good time to experience a personal tragedy, but the timing was striking. This event happened just as I was heading away on long-service leave, or more to the point, a planned Sabbatical. It was to be an extended solo retreat, with a month of silence to think deeply, read extensively, and rest fully.
My original plan was to unplug from ordinary life, by the beach, and reflect on my goals, role, and future. But death has a way of unhinging well-laid plans. Rather than contemplate my career, this retreat became a deep dive into grief, loss, and sadness, compelling me to focus on my inner-life – the state of my heart and soul – rather than on outward goals and dreams.
After the dust had settled and the funeral was complete, I wrestled with whether I should go as planned or stay put. My wife (who also had a plan to rest and retreat) encouraged me to go, even though removing myself from friends and family was hard. It was a great decision in the end. Withdrawal gave me the chance to process things more fully, confronting my grief as I explored the inner-life.
Examining The Inner Life In Silence
The practice of silence and solitude has a long history. It’s easy to understand (just turn off your phone and be alone for a time) but hard to do. When active and intentional, silence and solitude can be transformative. It’s about learning to be alone, without feeling lonely.
Even before this tragedy, I had a sense that I needed to reflect on my inner-life. Currently in my mid-forties, I have been sensing a mid-life crisis coming on for some time. I felt stressed, dissatisfied, and longed for a change, but rather than move cities or buy a Tesla, I decided it was time to sit with my soul and investigate what a healthy transition to “middle age” looks like in practice. So armed with a library of resources, I set out to discover what it means to transition gracefully, through loss, to the latter years of life.
There is so much wisdom in this space and I read veraciously. Some of the better books on my retreat include: “Second Mountain” by David Brooks, “Falling Upward” by Richard Rohr, “On The Brink of Everything” and “Let Your Life Speak” by Parker Palmer, “The Alchemist,” by Paolo Coelho, “Under The Unpredictable Plant” by Eugene Peterson, “Where Is God When It Hurts,” by Philip Yancy, “The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry,” by John-Mark Comer, “The Practice of the Presence of God” by Brother Laurence, and “The Making of a Leader” by Dr Robert Clinton. (I also read the entire “Firefly” series and the best of Michael Creighton, because one cannot be too serious when on holidays!)
Over this five week period, alone with books, I read slowly and contemplatively. I made notes. I did a lot of walking in silence. I journaled my thoughts and feelings. I looked for themes and resonance in various texts. Despite reading different authors from different backgrounds, I’ve been amazed at the consistency in the way they describe the “second half of life.” It seems there is a pattern to growing older, and growing older wisely through suffering. One author described this process as “Falling Upwards.” Another called it “Transformative Leadership.” My favourite description, the one that most connects with me, is the climb to the “Second Mountain.”
The Two Mountains Of Life
According to award-winning novelist David Brooks, there are two mountains.
The first mountain is an outward journey. It is about ego, achievement and identity. When we are young, our task is to discover what we are good at, what we believe, and who will share life with. With hard work and a bit of luck, most of us will experience one or two meaningful wins. Outwardly, as we build a career, gain a sense of self, and become “comfortable” in our own skin, we achieve some level of success. It takes skill and determination to succeed in various spheres of life. We grow in confidence and self-worth. Now we are climbing, secure in our strength, and everyone can see our progress.
First mountain you say? Isn’t this how to succeed in life? When I look at the hundreds of self-help, leadership and productivity books on my shelf, almost all of them address the first mountain. For many of us, this is all we know.
The Second Mountain
Climbing the second mountain is radically different than the first. It is counter-intuitive. It requires that we undo much of what we have learnt on the first mountain, including habits that worked so well in the first half of life.
While there is no rule, the transition to the second mountain typically occurs in our forties or fifties. It is not something we set out to do. The journey is most commonly triggered by suffering.
That’s right, suffering.
There is loss or grief. There is pain or disappointment. We lose a friend. We get sick. We fail at business. We realise that despite our delusions of grandeur, we will never be famous, or uber rich, or wildly popular. We will never be a celebrity. Or if by chance we do become wildly successful, it isn’t what we signed up for. We reach the summit of the first mountain, look around and wonder, “what’s the point?” Either way, it is usually pain or sorrow that compels us to walk the second mountain. We need to lose our equilibrium to shake old patterns and see ourselves anew.
In the words of theologian Paul Tillich: “Suffering upsets the normal patterns of life and reminds you that you are not who you thought you were. It smashes through the floor of what you thought was the basement of your soul and reveals a cavity below, and then it smashes through that floor and reveals a cavity below that.”
Smashing through the floor of our lives is not a pleasant metaphor, but there’s beauty in smashing our false assumptions, unhealthy life scripts, and internal chatter through pain. Falling can destroy a person, making them bitter and numb, or it can transform us to become kinder, more noble, and more committed to others. It’s unfortunate that we need misfortune to grow, learn and mature, but this is the path towards a greater sense of self. It is how we transition to the second mountain.
It Is Done To Us
In many ways, hard times can become our best times. These are times to surrender false dreams, unhealthy ego’s, and to change at a heart level. Then alone, removed from noise and forced to contemplate our own thoughts, there is a chance we might discover who we really are, deep in our soul. In the quiet places we can discover ourselves. We can finally be enough, when no one else is looking. We can be enough without awards and accolades, or the approval of others. In the stillness, alone with ourselves, we can discover just how little we need to be happy.
But first we need to process our pain. Such a climb can be difficult. It is an uncomfortable, humbling experience. “You conquer the first mountain,” explains David Brooks, but “you are conquered by your second mountain.” Similarly, in the words of spiritual author Richard Rohr: “It is not by our own willpower or moral perfection (that we reach the summit) … we can’t engineer it by ourselves. It is done unto us.”
In a success driven culture, it is almost impossible to imagine the benefits of “falling upward.” When I reflect on my own behaviours, and motivations, so much of what I have spent my life pursuing has been shaped by a belief that wealth, approval or happiness is the ultimate summit. If I work harder, attain bigger goals, or build a better team, then my life has meaning. It sounds superficial when I state it plainly, but this is the basic assumption behind the majority of what we read and teach in consumer culture. Work hard, follow your heart, discover your true self … and you will be successful! But for what end?
The second mountain, in contrast, is a noble but quiet journey. It is something that happens inside of us and is hard for others to see. It is not a mountain we choose to climb, but when the invitation comes our way, we are best to accept the journey. And the older we get, the more unavoidable this climb becomes. Our health will fail. Our careers will end. Our friends and family will die. Our legacies will fade. We will all suffer. And even if we respond in different ways, there is an invitation to walk the second mountain. For as we slow and age, and lose our ability to power through, it is the inner life, not the outer life, that really guides us forward. To know ourselves and to be enough, in spite of pain and suffering – this is a journey worth taking.
My Personal Journey
The second mountain is personal but it’s not private. In our society, most of us have experienced spiritual things, but it has become inappropriate to talk about them. This saddens me. A person can get by for some time without ever addressing the inner-life, but eventually, the external-life becomes inadequate without the inner-resources to make sense of the harder experiences of life.
I am only beginning my journey on the second mountain and it is hard to describe where I am heading, or how far I have made it. Yet there are some things I am discovering in silence and solitude that might encourage you as you walk your own journey.
I will be brief and may outline these learnings more extensively in future blog posts. But this is what I’m grappling with – the vow of stability, the death of success, and the commitment to live an inside-out life.
The Vow of Stability
On the first mountain, my goal was to go bigger. I started coaching people in Hobart, then Launceston, then Melbourne, and now New York and London. It felt good to live trans-locally. I was a person who could work “anywhere.” But in reality, no-one can live “anywhere.” There is a cost to transience. The second mountain has changed my perspective. Rather than broaden my networks, I want to narrow them. I want to be local and not trans-local. I want to love my neighbour. I want to be present in my city. I want to focus my attention on real people, who drink real coffee, in a real place, in real time. I want to commit to what the Benedictine monks called the “vow of stability.” That is, to commit to a home, a place, and a people, rather than living “everywhere.”
The Death of Success
I’ve been thinking about success and the success-ism than drives our culture. Success is a fool’s game. Very few people achieve to the point where they are remembered beyond a generation – I hear my daughter asking “who is John Travolta?” And even if they are, it rarely produces happiness. There will always be someone who is more successful than you. And even if you reach the top of your game in one area of life, it almost certainly comes at the expense of something else – family, or health, or humility, or morality.
I’m not suggesting that we stop pursuing big goals or lower our ambitions, but the motivation needs to be different. That is something I want to pursue on the second mountain – to let go of the need to be successful. I will still pursue big goals because I believe in big things, but not because I have to. I want to write because I love writing, not because I want an audience. I want to coach because I love people, not because I want an empire. Outwardly, the way I look and act might be the same, but on the inside, as a second mountain traveller, I hope my motivation will be different.
Living From The Inside-Out
Most of us live from the outside-in. We’re like pancake people, wide and thin. I have experienced this for myself and want something more. It relates to unseen motivations.
Over the last few years, I noticed that the more successful I became, the more my outward activities and achievements outpaced my inner life. I felt like a play actor, looking confident on the outside, but increasingly empty and unclear on the inside. It was like my body had outrun my soul, resulting in a loss of deep peace. As the saying goes, rather than living as a human being, I was becoming a human doing. My activity was outpacing my inward maturity. This is why I stopped. I took a deep breath and reset.
The challenge now is to continue living from the inside-out, rather than the outside-in. I realise there will be times of running, where life is busy and frantic, but I hope, on the second mountain, to catch myself faster. That is, to slow down and be still, investing in my inner life more regularly, rather than running to a standstill.
A Bright Sadness and Sober Happiness
If you have read this far, I commend you (it’s a long post and tackles serious stuff.) It can be hard to confront such things as pain and grief. You may be someone who is curious about the inner life. You may have experienced a suffering that leads to inner peace. You may be aware of the success that leads to emptiness. You may already be on the second mountain, indeed further along the journey than I am.
As I have discovered, most of us don’t get to choose whether or not we experience loss and sadness. Someone will metaphorically knock on your door. We are all invited to walk the second mountain. But this is a beautiful reality, and there is meaning in it all.
“There is a gravitas in the second half of life, but it is now held up by a much deeper lightness, or okayness,” suggests Parker Palmer. “Our mature years are characterised by a kind of bright sadness and a sober happiness … there is still darkness in the second half of life – in fact maybe even more. But there is now a changed capacity to hold it creatively and with less anxiety.” I love these words. They give me hope. I feel increasingly aware of the bright sadness and sober happiness in my own life and there is contentment in that.
Somehow, almost mysteriously, through the experience of deep suffering and personal sadness, we can find joy. It is a different type of joy than we experience on the first mountain. Less happy, a bit more dark. But it’s also a joy that is deep, and rich and unshakable. Such joy cannot be known without the journey through suffering. And that’s worth celebrating.
What is one thing that connects with you, and what might it mean for you to engage with the joy of suffering?
You can read more about silence and self-reflection in my award-winning book Spacemaker: how to unplug, unwind and think clearly in the digital age.