Perhaps the most important and perplexing question that has plagued humankind from time immemorial is the issue of life’s meaning. What is the point of it all? Each of us attempts to answer that question not necessarily in words but in choosing the direction of our own life. Some notable philosophers suggest that only in service to others can we find the purpose and meaning we so desperately seek.
As for me, I was born in the late 1940s but I am very much a child of the ’60s. Influenced by the Kennedys and the civil rights movement of the time, I set my sights on utilizing what time I have on this planet to helping those in need. It was an appeal to that precise sentiment by an old college friend that persuaded me to abandon my graduate work in philosophy and enroll in law school. He convinced me that I could do more to promote social and economic justice as a lawyer than I ever could do as a philosophy professor.
Upon graduation from Fordham Law School in 1974, my first call was to The Legal Aid Society of New York City. Unfortunately, that inquiry was met with the depressing news of a “hiring freeze.” My dream job would have to be put on hold. Days later, during a return visit to my law school, my favorite professor, Joseph Crowley, told me about a Fordham alumnus who was anxiously looking for a new Fordham graduate to join his labor law firm in Poughkeepsie. Within 24 hours, I had the job.
In my haste to leave the ranks of the unemployed, I had not thoroughly researched my new employer. In my defense, I would like to point out that back then research wasn’t as easy as it is today with no internet or cellphones. I soon discovered that his clients were precisely the group I had envisioned opposing. But at least I had a job. After a month or so, my boss sent me on my first hearing. We were representing a small business that had fired an employee for fighting on the job. I represented the company in a proceeding before a hearing officer to decide the validity of the termination, a procedure mandated by the union contract.
On the morning of the hearing, I arrived early with the president of the small company and both the hearing officer and the union representative were there but the employee was a bit late. Before he arrived, his union representative, a white middle-aged man, told the hearing officer that he wanted him (the hearing officer) to decide in favor of the company. His request was laced with racial epithets, which made the hair on the back on my neck stand up. Moments later, the Black male employee arrived, and the hearing began. When it was my turn to speak, I announced that I had no intention in participating in this racist fiasco and walked out of the hearing with the president of the company not far behind me shaking his fist furiously in my direction. As I expected, I was unceremoniously fired the next day.
My stay on the rolls of the unemployed did not last long as two weeks later, I received a phone call from a lawyer in Bronxville, who had heard of my exploits and wanted me to represent his union clients. For over a year, I enjoyed representing unions and its members in contract negotiations as well as a whole host of other proceedings. The firm established, and I ran, the first union-based prepaid legal program for union members, covering their domestic, criminal, and estate law needs. On one particular busy morning, I was given the task of representing a union member who had missed many days of work due to his alcoholism. He was a total mess as his drinking had wreaked havoc on every aspect of his life. His family had had enough and apparently so had his employer. Evidently, the union wasn’t too keen on him, either, because on the night before his hearing, I received a call from the union president who told me he wanted me to “throw the case.” My profanity-laced response and my subsequent successful representation of the employee predictably led to a then all too familiar phone call two days later informing me that I was being let go.
Less than a week after losing my job as a union lawyer, I was told that the Legal Aid Society of New York City had lifted its hiring freeze. Within a month, I was hard at work in my dream job, which was where I wanted to be in the first place. Forty-four years later, I still find meaning and purpose in life by helping those who need my assistance. I have learned first-hand the wisdom and value of what the Dalai Lama calls Karuna. It essentially means a deep empathetic understanding of the human condition. Our compassion and its concurrent altruistic commitment to act must be rooted, he explains, in the understanding and appreciation of suffering. To put it in Buddhist terms, what I am referring to is a modern version of the ancient bodhisattva path: the life affirming resolution to act for the benefit of all sentient beings. This is my yardstick not only in judging my own life but also in assessing all human interaction, including politics.
If you look for it, you can witness signs of this type of compassion and empathy all around us. For example, a person who lived a life of compassionate action far exceeding anything I have ever achieved was a man named Charles Cook. He was a happily retired MTA conductor who spent his golden years playing chess with his buddies in Mount Morris Park. When 9/11 hit, his world changed dramatically. Not able to get transportation, he walked 10 miles to Ground Zero and spent the next hundred days rescuing people who were buried in the ruble. Even the warning that his life would be cut short five to 15 years did not stop him. His take on it was simple, “You come in this world to go, it’s a matter of how you go. Do you make a difference, was your life meaningful?”
After courageously ignoring the warnings, Mr. Cook began to experience trouble breathing and could not clear his throat. It was his second day at Ground Zero. Undeterred, he kept working for three months until it was insisted that he go home. Having found his Kuruna, years later, our hero headed to New Orleans to help the victims of Katrina. He is reported to have remarked, “I wasn’t doing anything with my time. But now I have purpose, you know. When I’m helping someone, I have purpose.” After Katrina, Mr. Cook continued to selflessly lend a helping hand whenever it was needed.
Charles Cook passed away this past August at age 79. Did his life have meaning? He thought so and so do I. He once remarked that contributing to the greater good was the key to a good life. The Dalai Lama and I couldn’t agree more. Thank you, Charles Cook, for making this world a better place. Rest in Peace.