By Thom Little, Ph.D.
When my daughter Virginia was five years old, we signed her up for one-week ballet camp during the summer. We knew she loved to dance because we would often see her in our backyard or living room dancing to music that no one else could hear. So, we were not surprised when that five-day camp turned into a love affair with dance that extended well into her high school years where she attended our public school for the performing arts. However, that love affair ended rather abruptly when she was fifteen and developed severe back problems that made significant movement very painful. While the back problem would eventually (and thankfully) be corrected, Virginia’s time on the dance floor was significantly curtailed.
As she looked for something to fill that void, Virginia began to increase the time she dedicated to volunteer efforts. She volunteered at a school for children with disabilities. She tutored kids in an afterschool program. She served meals at our local homeless shelter. She got up every Tuesday before 6:00 am to help with a breakfast at a local church. She discovered that serving others brought her even more joy than dance. In short, in having to give up her love of dance, she found her passion for helping others. She developed and nurtured a commitment to helping others.
I have been reminded of my daughter’s passion for service this past week as I have been reading David Brooks’ “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life” in which the author suggests that such a passion for service should motivate us all. Brooks suggests that most people, unlike my daughter, are not lucky enough discover their passion when they are young, but instead spend much of their life chasing other measures of success: power, money, prestige, position, etc. Reflecting on his own life as a very successful author and columnist who saw his personal life fall apart, Brooks argues that a life focused climbing the self-centered mountain defined by material success will eventually lead to frustration and emptiness–such successes are short lived and often come at the cost of relationships with family and friends. On the other hand, a life built around serving and improving the lives of others will bring the ultimate joy and satisfaction that an accumulation of “stuff” (with all due respect to George Carlin) will never bring.
According to Brooks, most people (including Brooks) have to learn this lesson the hard way, spending much of their adult lives climbing that “material mountain,” before discovering that there is very little at the crest. That is why he refers to the effort to find true happiness and passion in service to others as “the second mountain,” discovered and climbed after reaching the top of the first mountain left him empty. People climbing the second mountain are not climbing to build up their bank accounts or their social status or their egos. They are climbing because they have found something that brings them pure joy–they have found a passion and love what they do. According to Brooks, “People who are on the second mountain have been transformed. They are deeply committed.”
It is my belief (or maybe wish) that in service in the legislature and in leadership, you have found that second mountain–you get joy out of helping a constituent navigate the bureaucracy; you take great pleasure in solving a vexing public policy problem so that the lives of the people of your state are better; you have a passion for serving those who are not always represented in our democracy; you are excited to change government and your state for the better. In other words, you are committed to serving the public and doing whatever you can to improve the quality of life for those whom you represent.
Why else would you put yourself (and your family) through the increasingly demanding campaigns, the fourteen hour legislative days, the late night constituent calls and texts and the missed ball games and recitals? I have seen your legislative salaries, so I know it’s not the money. Public opinion currently rates elected officials somewhere between used car salesmen and televangelists so I know you are not doing for the ego boost. As a leader, maybe it is the power associated with the office, but given all of the pressures, headaches and challenges that go with the position, I am not sure the power is worth the pain.
If public service brings you joy and you have a passion for solving problems and meeting the needs of the people of your state and district, keep climbing that second mountain–the country needs you!
To circle back to where this story started, last month, Virginia graduated from Elon University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Special Education and Middle Grade Social Studies. She will begin teaching at a Middle School (if teaching middle school is not a public service, I don’t know what is!) next month–keep climbing that mountain!