In 1970, I read a pamphlet written by a young man about his participation in Volunteers in Service to America, an antipoverty program. He was from somewhere in the eastern part of the country (nearly all VISTA volunteers were from the coasts or upper Midwest), and he was sent to an Indian reservation in Wyoming. The prose was simple and straightforward. He didn’t describe notable advances he had made to end poverty—no organized protests to change local decision makers’ minds, or establishment of a food cooperative, or creation of a welfare rights organization. He wrote about his daily life. I don’t remember the details, but I do recall the spirit; it was a modest, giving existence in which he gained an appreciation of the people he was supposedly helping. He was learning about another culture and how his culture—the dominant white one—treated those who were without some of the basics. He didn’t receive thanks from the Native Americans he interacted with, and he didn’t expect it. There was nothing for them to be thankful for. He was young, just out of college, and psychologically at the level of maturity one would expect in a person in his early twenties. He relished his time on the reservation despite not being able to refer to a single accomplishment, except his personal growth. He seemed happy and he seemed engaged in meaningful work. I found it compelling.
I joined VISTA, enthusiastic about being able to follow my bliss. But after a month or so, I began to sense I was blissfully ignorant. I was assigned to work with a crafts cooperative in the lower Appalachians. The people were receptive and the co-op, with a good bit of external help, didn’t fail; but I was frustrated by not being able to point to a lasting contribution I had made. The initial ardor soon faded. Happiness, according to Roy Baumeister in an Aeon article entitled “The Meanings of Life,” is having desires fulfilled such as being physically or emotionally comfortable and satiated. Persons leading meaningful lives, however, are struggling with adverse situations or dealing with unfavorable events. Meaningful exertions can be ambiguous and hard. Happiness is gratification in the present moment, whereas meaning links the past, present and future. On being accepted into VISTA, I was happy. When I experienced the dull routine and lack of visible progress, the happiness disappeared, and only in hindsight did I realize what I was doing could have meaning.
Later in life I became involved in other undertakings reflecting my fervor for social justice. When the AIDS epidemic was in force in the late 1980s, I had a desire to understand the anguish and loss of those facing this death sentence. Thus, I became a hospice volunteer with a large inner city hospital. And while this hospital served more AIDS patients than any other in the state, few were referred to hospice. My patients in those years were elderly and middle-aged black men dying from cancer. Instead of encountering anguish and loss from AIDS, I encountered anguish and loss from being an African American in the South. My first patient was in his early eighties. He worked for almost forty years at a steel plant, starting as an assistant crane operator and finishing as an assistant crane operator. He had to retire in his early sixties to care for his ailing wife, and although he worked at the plant for four decades, he didn’t get a pension because he left before he was sixty-five. He didn’t rail against the injustice; he simply told me his tale, objectively, without emotion. I visited him weekly for a year and a half; daily for the last few weeks of his life. Yet despite his compelling story, the early passion dissipated and my justifications for continuing to visit were in my head rather than my heart.
In VISTA and hospice, I was seeking an emotional high from doing worthwhile acts; a form of happiness in which pleasure came not from hedonistic gratification but from accomplishing a treasured ideal. Baumeister writes happy souls don’t worry, argue or have problems weighing over them. Although this characterization was true early on, for both endeavors my enthusiasm soon disappeared as I became anxious and frustrated, battling ennui. While involved in efforts I considered selfless, I was left stuck in the muck brought about by my misguided quest for happy fulfillment. Over time, I accepted the loss of joy from being involved in important undertakings, which reinforced my determination to pursue meaning with or without uplift, knowing it would be a path through difficult times.
And what is meaning? According to Baumeister, four elements must be present. The first is purpose, which is reflected in our aims, whether personal or social. The second is holding values that guide us in ascertaining right from wrong, and provide the foundation for how we present ourselves to others. The third is efficacy, or being able to accomplish our objectives. And the last is self-worth, which is feeling good about who we are and what we do. This formula revealed a gap in my pursuit: I wasn’t feeling good about who I was or what I was doing. Why? This wasn’t answered in Baumeister’s recipe, which is abstract and limited in what it explains. It didn’t acknowledge meaning is a flesh and blood experience.
Forty-seven years after leaving to be a poverty worker, I was back in the country where I was raised, the place I call home when “home” is the topic under discussion. I was driving west towards Platte City, Missouri from Smithville. The sunset was resplendent. A thin layer of clouds was on the horizon through which I saw a shimmering tangerine-colored disk, a perfect circle. Although this sphere wasn’t quite as large, it was reminiscent of the renowned sundown I had witnessed among the ruins in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I was struck at how the ordinary surroundings I was in had such an exotic accent. My thoughts gravitated to what I saw on this short visit: While the demographics here are changing, the changes are slow, and this area continues to be controlled by people who are aging, white, insecure, and intolerant. Their children, I surmise, share their beliefs, so the odds are the political and social landscape will stay as it is for the next generation. I had been visiting my aunt whose son had died a few days earlier. Because I had just left a grieving mother who outlived her child, my mood was downcast. In contrast to the beauteous sunset, the signs I saw (some literally) of a triumphalist, xenophobic land were overpowering.
The drive evoked a memory. When I was thirteen, my grandfather needed help putting up hay; so, on a sunny day in August several of his sons and grandsons, including my dad and me, pitched in, but the spirit of kindness didn’t go beyond the family. Around the dinner table, I heard the vitriol of relatives reacting to the great Washington civil rights march taking place that day—the main story on the noon newscasts—in which black leaders and their supporters spoke eloquently of their plight, asking to be treated fairly. Where I was, the racist ranting wasn’t eloquent or thoughtful; it was vicious, and frightening when coming from those who are my flesh and blood. It was a momentous day; on a less momentous note, I unconsciously knew I had to leave this land of my birth.
Now I’ve returned to mourn the death of a cousin my age. Knowing what I do of the people who are from here, I’m anxious because I don’t see myself as being connected to them. I don’t fear I’ll relapse, in atavistic fashion, to unreason and ugly emotion. Rather I fear being forced to make a choice between what I know to be good and what they believe is right. They feel they are being treated unjustly. They’re not mistaken: They are being treated unjustly, but their remedy is to banish and abuse those not like them, hating people they think are rivals or who, they maintain, are getting preferential treatment.
Although I don’t sense a connection to these people, it’s there. I’m one of them. On my dad’s side (the racist farmers), I have relatives feeling the condescension and disdain of more affluent acquaintances and family, and of the larger society that is indifferent and uncaring. Some in my generation reacted to these pressures in harmful ways. Four of my cousins have died, three in their middle years. Two brothers perished from “deaths of despair”; one from suicide and the other from a drug overdose. When I heard this news, I was disturbed, but since I hadn’t seen them in forty-five years, I can’t honestly say I felt bad for them or their families; I just felt bad. Another cousin expired from multiple chronic conditions and obesity in the extreme (weighing over five hundred pounds). I had paid him a visit just four months before his death, and though we didn’t know each other—our interactions consisting of scattered sightings at family gatherings over five decades ago and the recent visit—I felt sympathy for him; he was emotionally and physically battered. And the fourth—the only one over sixty—succumbed from the effects of stroke along with complications from diabetes and heart disease. Unlike the others, I had known him well: When we were young, I looked forward to his company, and we had stayed in touch over the years. Though different in many ways, we had common experiences, working and living together as teens. And during the final twenty months of his life—time he spent in a nursing home—I felt his loss of hope. His death affected me deeply. None of these cousins held a professional position, had been to college, or were married at the time of death. They were working class, middle-age, white guys, “strictly blue collar,” as one described himself to me. As I witness what is occurring to members of my family, I am saddened. While I can’t accept their hostile tribal beliefs, I can’t escape the ineffable bond formed by our common blood.
Maybe it is a result of growing old, but my quest for meaning is broadening its focus. When younger, I saw striving for justice as a project in which I engage people with backgrounds different from my own. But from what I have witnessed over the past decade, I realize that in my quest to be altruistic—preventing harm or bringing benefits—I’ve overlooked certain people. Altruism affirms our humanity: To feel nothing when confronted with the suffering of others is to be emotionally barren; failing to act when encountering people in dire situations is to be morally timid. While being attentive to the needs of strangers, I had pretended not to see the suffering and dire situations of people with whom I did not want to associate—the kith and kin of my upbringing. Although taxing because of our differences, I am obligated to those who are related and those who are from the same roots as I; it’s an obligation I can no longer disregard.
The philosopher Thomas Nagel observed that we are insignificant creatures when examined from an “external standpoint.” In light of the billions of years the universe has existed and the billions of beings who have lived in it, our time on Earth is inconsequential. We are meaningless. I felt that way on my drive back from visiting my grieving aunt. The temper of the community hadn’t changed in any appreciable way from when I was growing up. My perspective, on the other hand, had changed. I came to understand I’m a social being, and though I can make choices, there are limits to what I can ignore. I now accept I’m who I am and where I am because of random events, fortunate for the most part yet arbitrary. Nevertheless, while I might be living in a meaningless world, meaning is possible. But the tension remains.