The Road to Character Blog

THE CONVERSATION

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PURPOSE: New York City and Wildlife

by Ken Scarlatelli

Age 58, New York City & Baltimore

I’m an environmental scientist, currently working as the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Supervisor of Natural Resources for New York City.  I relish this position as a way to try to improve the natural environment and quality of life for New York City residents, visitors, and its wildlife. I think it’s an extremely important mission, because NYC is a great center of money, power, and influence; and if the global effort to create a sustainable world for both people and nature.

However, my father, Joseph Scarlatelli, taught me early on that passionate work for a noble cause is the key to a meaningful life, just fame, or professional and financial successes are not. He taught me that, no matter how great a positive change you might be able to make on the world and society (think Ghandi, Lincoln, Jesus, Einstein, and Rachel Carson), given the vastness of time and space (not to mention the prospect of a multi-verse), any great goal any one or collection of us could achieve, is but a drop in the bucket of the larger scheme of things, and will relatively soon (on a cosmic scale, at least), be forgotten before long.

No, my father taught me instead, that the key to a meaningful life is to find one person, or a handful of people, that you care deeply about, and to do everything in your power to make their lives as good as they can be.


No, my father taught me instead, that the key to a meaningful life is to find one person, or a handful of people, that you care deeply about, and to do everything in your power to make their lives as good as they can be. This produces real-time, lasting, positive, and tangible effects that can have ripple effects, as it has in my life. If we all did that, many of the larger-picture problems facing the world would take care of themselves.

PURPOSE: Food, Clothing, Shelter and Tickle Fights

by Mike McKnight

Age 43, Los Angeles, CA

You’re going to hear this response a lot, and I’m respectfully surprised you didn’t mention it in the NYT column as a pervasive source of human purpose, but I found my purpose in serving my family. Before I got married at age 31, I just wanted to be a respected writer. Afterward, almost as if a switch had been flipped, I became surprisingly and highly motivated by making my wife and one, two, now three children — hmm, if not happy (What does that mean?) then at least content and comfortable (in their own skin more than financial comfort).

Mainly it’s about contentedness and fun, though. Tickle fights and inside jokes and loud, tasty dinners and all that.

Less flowery and romantic is the purpose I’ve found in providing food, clothing, shelter, and security; that’s a strong purpose, albeit a primal and somewhat boring one. Mainly it’s about contentedness and fun, though. Tickle fights and inside jokes and loud, tasty dinners and all that.

I tried very hard to answer this honestly and avoid tropes and clichés. This is what I felt deep down. Thank you.

PURPOSE: Plain Living and High Thinking

by Karen Hudson

It was not any one person or experience that shaped my attitudes.  It was the ethos of the entire community.  My brother and I were fortunate to grow up in an area populated by the descendants of New England Puritans and Scandinavian emigrants. From our mother’s extended Danish family, we were bathed in unconditional love.  From our father’s, there was an emphasis on strong-as-steel individual responsibility and personal integrity.

It was not any one person or experience that shaped my attitudes.  It was the ethos of the entire community. 

“You are no better than anyone else, and no one is better from you,” the Danes taught us from our earliest days.  Plain living and high thinking were emphasized by our father. We were told that our strengths and talents were to be used for community, nation, and world—not merely for individual gain.  Ostentation was not valued: “Hygge,” the Danish concept of warmth, trust, joy in each other and in community, was highly prized. There is a reason why sociological studies find that Denmark is the happiest country in the world.

“You are no better than anyone else, and no one is better from you,” the Danes taught us

We realize that this way of life is out of sync with a competitive, dog-eat-dog world. Our habitual attitude, treating all people equally, is puzzling to some.  We do acknowledge that we are not perfect, and we accept our own flaws as we accept the shortcomings of others.  We do realize that some may think ours is a utopian view, unrealistic and naïve; but we grew up among people who lived it, and we try to model it ourselves. The longevity, the health and happiness of our forebears provides powerful witness to the wisdom of this way of living.

 

PURPOSE: Springtime in North Dakota

by John Schuurman

It was January, 1978, on a Friday afternoon near  Minot, North Dakota, when I discovered “The Problem of Pain.”

North Dakotans are warm and wonderful people and they live in a lovely place but they have real winter there. If you’ve spent the month of January in North Dakota, you know brute winter and cruel cold and perhaps even  the fear of a “Manitoba Mauler” – one of the dangerous winter storms than can roar across the prairie from our Canadian neighbor. I was learning such things on that Friday because I hit ice and I lost control of my van. During the spin, I recall the fleeting thought that I was not prepared for this. When the van came to rest in the ditch beside the road I knew a new kind of pain – the pain of the uninitiated out of his element. I was in trouble. The snow had blinded me, I was in the ditch, and there was no God.

I was in trouble. The snow had blinded me, I was in the ditch, and there was no God.


Let me explain: Though I had grown up in a seriously devout home, now I was having none of it. I had gone to graduate school during the unruly early seventies, had “lost my faith at university,” and was now a secular man, a modern man of reason who had grown past the need for the emotional props that some found in the scriptural fairy tales.

I was a 1970ish nihilist. Life held no meaning; the world – what with the bomb, pollution, pandemic disease, the military-industrial complex, etc. – was so benighted that hope for anything better was merely a pathetic denial of reality. We needed to face it: we were doomed; chaos, the law of the predator, and survival of the fittest were the only ordering principles that fit the facts. My new situation in the ditch seemed a perfect match.

What I was doing with that daunting outlook in January of 1978 takes some explanation too. I was performing “Lyceums” (school assemblies) as an actor/storyteller/folk musician in the upper Midwest. During that school year I was “playing” the Dakotas. I would stop at the two or three schools that my agency had booked for each day and do my show for them.

What I stumbled on next, nearly frozen and virtually blinded by snow and cold, was PAT’S MOTEL.

My show was thoroughly secular (but quite moral), and touted the pleasures of literature, the fun of eccentric characters, and the virtues of tolerance and studying hard. Despite my Spartan world-view, the entertainment was actually entertaining. The reviews were good, laughs and tears came regularly enough, and I loved the work. Suffice to say, that in my calls to responsible living and enjoyment of stories, I used comedy to lampoon the fearful giants that threatened the world and I used stories of courage and derring-do to help the kids see that there were better choices than just going along with “the system.”

At any rate, that January afternoon near Minot, North Dakota, the chaos and random suffering of life took on a new immediacy for me as I struggled out of my van, now tipping precariously on the edge of the ditch. The snow was coming in sideways and the wind growled around me. As I said, I was a novitiate to a North Dakota winter – I was from the much more benign Denver, Colorado – and I foolishly left my car, and trudged forth in search of some help.

What followed next still amazes me for so little of it makes any earthly sense. I had gone only about fifty yards and was newly aware that I had done a foolish thing by leaving the car. Unless some fairly dramatic thing happened quickly my level of trouble would soon multiply. But some fifty yards away I faintly saw some blinking lights and struck off in that direction.

What I stumbled on next, nearly frozen and virtually blinded by snow and cold, was PAT’S MOTEL. Pat’s was one of those little trucker motels that were probably built in the 1930’s. It consisted of a small frame house that had the blinking, “Pat’s Motel” sign on it, and then a small row of four or five single motel rooms in a row alongside the road.
I clambered to the porch, searched out the door, and fell into a place that I still can’t believe. There was a counter and a little silver palm bell to ring for assistance, but that was about the only thing that resembled any business establishment I had ever seen. To be concise, the place was filled with what I can only call, “Jesus kitsch.” A small tape player played sweet Bible school songs. The room was lined with shelves that were jam-packed with pamphlets, small books, little ornamental crosses, tiny Christmas crèches, lots of small statuettes of Jesus the tender shepherd, Jesus teaching the children, and Jesus calming the storm. In short, the place was floor to ceiling with thousands of pieces of pious devotion. As I think back on it now, it must have doubled as a religious trinkets gift shop.
And here it gets really very wondrous: behind the counter was a sweet grandmother knitting. Really. As I stumbled in – so very glad to be alive – she kindly looked up and said, “Hello. Jesus told me you were coming.”

I must have simply stood and gasped and tried to stay upright.

The book was, The Problem of Pain. “That is by C.S. Lewis. Do you know him? He can be a trifle deep, but sometimes I like someone that makes me sit up straight. I think you might like him.”


“You are in trouble, aren’t you?” she said, standing. She minced over and guided me into a chair. “I’ll fix you some tea. Have you eaten?”

The details of what happened next are sort of blurred for me. She fed me and asked what I needed. “A tow-truck? We’ll see to that after the storm. The Post Office to get your check? Oh, you can’t do that until Monday. You’ll stay in Number Three. Here’s the key. That’s OK, you can pay me when you can.”

When I was warmed and fed, she took me out again into the storm but now the short way to Number Three. The wind still growled but it was different somehow. She opened the door, checked the thermostat, gave me the key, and turned to go. She stopped at the door and from her pocket pulled a small book and handed it to me. The book was, The Problem of Pain.

“That is by C.S. Lewis. Do you know him? He can be a trifle deep, but sometimes I like someone that makes me sit up straight. I think you might like him.”

Later, I laid on the bed and turned to the introduction. “… when I was an atheist, if anyone had asked me, ‘Why do you not believe in God?’ my reply would have run something like this: ‘Look at the universe we live in … if you ask me to believe that this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, I reply that all the evidence points in the opposite direction. Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit.” and Lewis “had me at ‘hello’.”

So on the bed in Pat’s Motel, still trembling from my brawl with deadly winter, and flabbergast at the amazing love and wisdom of this woman at whose piety I was wont to sneer, I found a new way to think that ultimately led to a new way to live.

As I read, I felt as if someone was working an old-fashioned can opener on my brain. Each of these main thrusts was a challenge and then a cranking and then a release. I felt set upon and then uncuffed. It was winter and spring over and over.

So I don’t know. But that Friday provided the grist for a new humility for me. I also acquired from it a wonderful hunger for full-throttle belief that was unafraid of piety or intellect.


Lewis was right, the universality of a moral law can’t be denied or reasoned away with nonsense about pre-scientific superstitions. Our sense of ought is an irrepressibly human thing.

It is true! Working only with the data of humanity’s relentless experience of suffering, man would never have come up with the notion of a benevolent omnipotent deity. Such a concept could only come from elsewhere, from outside. It could only come from revelation.

How it is that God worked all this out for me?

He took this loquacious young performer with a chip on his shoulder and put him in a Manitoba Mauler and then for refuge in a treacly roadside motel with a brilliant grandma. She handed him a little book she’d clearly chosen from out of her pile of Jesus stuff. I’m not one who regularly claims the unusual and remarkable circumstances I encounter as “miraculous.” I prefer to try to simply live a life of gratitude for God’s ongoing care and plan of redemption. So I don’t know. But that Friday provided the grist for a new humility for me. I also acquired from it a wonderful hunger for full-throttle belief that was unafraid of piety or intellect.

PURPOSE: Nobody Laughed at Either One

by Linda G. Harris

Age 71. Las Cruces, NM

I have always had great curiosity and from somewhere confidence in myself.  Many, many times I’ve drawn on what I feel is a generous measure of knowing what I should do.  Sometimes, in fact many times I’ve either made the wrong choice or had to accept decisions  of others that I disagreed with.  In high school I had an English teacher who would read poetry to the class.  One time he began to cry while reading and a student, a boy, stepped up and finished the poem.  Nobody laughed at either one.  Although I was an unremarkable student, I knew that words could be beautiful and I wanted a life full of beautiful and interesting stories.
I came from a working class, tumultuous family.  My stepfather drank and we were often broke.  My mother was very emotional but also took on the hard work of helping support us.  Again in high school I had a teacher who opened up a wider world for me. She came from a wealthy southern family, she had been a ballerina, and she was married to a West Point officer.  She taught modern dance and during the health portion she showed slides of her post-college trip to Europe simply to look at architecture.  From that day I knew I would make such a trip.  It took 20 years, but I have gone to Europe again and again.  But most important is that these two young teachers made me realize that I did not have to live the desperate lives of my parents.  And I haven’t.

PURPOSE: Rabbi Turned Stand-Up Comedian

by Rabbi Bob Alper

Age 70. Vermont

I live to make people laugh. Last weekend: synagogue shows in Phoenix and Tucson, comedy clubs in NYC and Scottsdale, and just as important, flight attendants and gate agents.

I’m a rabbi turned full-time stand-up comic


I’m a rabbi turned full-time stand-up comic (heard on Sirius/XM, etc.) The weekend before, performed with my Muslim and Christian friends at colleges in PA and AR, bringing together people from very different backgrounds, helping them laugh together.  And the week before that, I performed for a black Muslim convention in DC, with my close friend, Palestinian Mo Amer (on the right in the photo) and May May Ali, Mohammed Ali’s daughter.  I’m the very white guy on the left.

I consider myself blessed with a special ability to enhance others’ lives through laughter.  The title of my latest book says it all:
“Thanks. I Needed That.”  I checked into a hotel late one night, said some funny things, to which the desk clerk responded, “I’ve had a really rough day.  Thanks.  I Needed That.” 

My life is filled with amazingly gratifying moments like that

PURPOSE: Giving Kids a Conscience

by Colleen Bryant

Age 42. Portland, OR

Personally and professionally, my purpose is the same. I teach children to make good choices for the right reasons. I teach them that they are part of something greater than themselves and that the greatest reward comes from knowing they’ve done the right thing in their hearts. It feels a bit pompous to write it like that. But it all started from a very practical place.
I quit the corporate world after a decade in marketing. I was raising two step-children and two biological children, all under 10, and quickly realized I’d signed up for something that would have more of an impact on the world than the best brochures I’d ever created.  You see, bringing up children is not all wiping snot and passing out fruit snacks. The truly challenging part about raising kids is teaching them how to be decent human beings.

You see, bringing up children is not all wiping snot and passing out fruit snacks. The truly challenging part about raising kids is teaching them how to be decent human beings.

Every child lies. Every child can be mean. And every last one of them will do something that makes you think, “What on Earth were you thinking?” Feeling a bit overwhelmed by the responsibility, I looked to parenting experts—and got really frustrated. At the time, parenting was dominated by rewards-based discipline. “Are your kids being mean to each other? Set up a rewards chart that gives them points for saying nice things to each other.” Well guess what, my kids just gamed the system. They said nice things to get the reward, not because they were learning to be kind from their hearts.

At that point I decided we needed a better way. The kids needed to know what a conscience was. They needed to know that even if no one else knew what they did, they knew on the inside. They needed to know that being honest felt better in their hearts than lying. They needed to know they helped set the table before dinner because a family is a team and we help each other out of kindness and responsibility, not because we want something. They needed to know that even if a friend was unkind, retaliation didn’t feel as good as knowing you rose above the negative situation.

The kids needed to know what a conscience was. They needed to know that even if no one else knew what they did, they knew on the inside. They needed to know that being honest felt better in their hearts than lying.


Before long, I had a set of phrases we said around the house: “There’s the easy way and the right way.”; “Right now is a great time to make a good choice.”; “Ask yourself ‘What if?’ If the answer is you’re going to hurt yourself, hurt someone else, or make your momma mad, you better rethink it.”

It was working. The kids started making choices based on the impact they had on others. You could see the struggle on their faces sometimes, that moment of choosing between easy deceit or honesty. You could feel their disappointment in themselves as they accepted consequences for bad choices. Sure they still made (and make) mistakes—it’s how we grow. But all in all, they were growing into people with self-respect, not just self-esteem.

This was all well and good until the kids’ friends came over. And that’s when I realized that other parents and teachers struggled with the same issues. Life lessons are universal and we could all use some helpful wisdom to raise good kids. Long story short, I personified some wise, old trees and created the Talking with Trees book series (TalkingTreeBooks.com).

Through picture books and free character education teaching materials, the series teaches lessons in honesty, respect, responsibility and more good traits. Today thousands of people download the free content every month. I don’t make money at it, but that’s not the point. If one more child in the world learns that “Well he did it first!” doesn’t feel as good in his heart as “I’m sorry. I should have thought that through,” then I have fulfilled a worthy purpose.

PURPOSE: Frankie the Dog

by Eric Albert

Age 66. New Rochelle, NY

I learned my purpose in life from being my canine companion’s guardian for the last 15 1/2 years of his life. He crossed over Rainbow Bridge on September 7, 2012 at the age of 17 1/2.

My purpose in life is to try to be as existential as Frankie was.


My purpose in life is to try to be as existential as Frankie was, i.e., experiencing and receiving joy in the moment. To not take each day I live for granted. To be mindful that life can change in a second, and be grateful for waking up in good health with a roof over my head; with enough food to eat; with all my senses intact, and so many other blessings too numerous to count.

Prior to Frankie’s passing, I was not very reflective about my purpose in life. I learned about my purpose in life from reflecting about how he experienced his life. He was an angel sent to Earth in the form of a dog. He was MY angel. For some people this may seem corny, but for me it has been a revelation. 

PURPOSE: My Feet Tapping

by Lia Avellino

Age 27. New York, NY

I was born and raised in New York City.  I learned the art of striving at a very young age.  My father, raised by a single-mom who immigrated to Pelham Bay in The Bronx from a fisherman’s island in Italy, managed an Italian restaurant by night and worked in the garment district during the day.  My mother, raised in Westport, Connecticut, sold men’s fragrance at Saks Fifth Avenue.  As a hippie turned-born-again-Christian, my mother taught us to believe in the value of good works and self-regulation. Work, for me, became compulsory; defining and all encompassing.  The goal was always “more,” and it had to be more of everything.

The goal was always “more,” and it had to be more of everything.

By the age of 26, I worked as a fashion model in NYC, worked on a team to redesign the way the chronic ill in New York received health care, taught a memoir writing group to teens from at-risk environments, got married, managed a national component of President Obama’s 5-year initiative to reduce teen pregnancy, enrolled in graduate school at Columbia to study social work, provided counseling to over-aged and under-credited youth in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, and worked for one of the most well-respected media moguls in the world, traveling globally and nationally.

However, I couldn’t tell you what month the trees began to bloom in my neighborhood, or what the large piece of art hanging in my therapist’s office looked like.  I woke up at 5 am daily, sometimes earlier, to get a workout in and then rode the subway, feeling anxious that I was unreachable while someone “needed” something from me “immediately.”  I developed something of a covert narcissism, which many of us New Yorker have–the belief that everything we do matters and so much is hinged on our participation and decision-making.

However, I couldn’t tell you what month the trees began to bloom in my neighborhood, or what the large piece of art hanging in my therapist’s office looked like.


I identified that I was petrified of stopping.  Of what I would find in myself, if I didn’t hold it all together.  I wasn’t ready to act, but I was ready to listen.  So I listened.  I turned to my sisters in feminism, literature and film:

to writer Joan Didion, telling me to “play it as it lays”

to feminist bell hooks, reminding me that “to live consciously means to seek to be aware of everything that bears on our actions, purposes, values and goals”

to Maude (of the 1971 film Harold and Maude), who emboldened me by saying “Look.  See, some are smaller, some are fatter, some grow to the left, some to the right, some even have lost some petals.  All kind of observable differences.  You see, Harold, I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are this…yet allow themselves to be treated as that.”

to poet Dylan Thomas, who said to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”

to a New York Times Modern Love columnist Gary Presley, who told me to act “against head-logic.  With heart-dreams.”

and lastly Toni Cade Bambara whose words ring in my ear daily, “To be trapped in other people’s fictions puts us under arrest.  What you are doing matters.  Remember that.”

I collated all of these wisdoms on a blog, and read them daily.  I saw, and began to believe that there was nothing more I needed to do.
I simply matter, just as simply and beautifully as you matter.

Purpose in saying hello to the fear, welcoming it in, understanding it, dismantling it, and then hopefully, to release it and dance.


One morning when I got to my desk, I made a list of all my personal values, and asked myself if I was living life in accordance with those values.  It was a very simple exercise, but it gave me that nudge to move toward trying something different. My list and my life were misaligned.

I made the hard decision to leave my job.  To stop.  To wade in the middle of the ocean, without the directive flashing lights.

I am deeply afraid of what I’ll find, but there is purpose in this alone.  Purpose in saying hello to the fear, welcoming it in, understanding it, dismantling it, and then hopefully, to release it and dance.

I know I want to dance, I feel my feet tapping.

PURPOSE: Stories About Bill

by Brian Davis

Age 50. La Grange, IL

It was 2012. Many of us in our close-knit neighborhood were pushing 50 when several male friends and neighbors died suddenly…these were terrific, fun-loving, community-minded people in an idyllic suburban community in Chicagoland.  At one of these funerals, we got a bit of a shock. Three of us were asked to speak, and we shared our stories about Bill. Later in the same ceremony, three of Bill’s California friends spoke. We had heard of these guys — people Bill and his wife had befriended in Orange County in the 80’s when they were young and married without kids. As the three spoke to the mourners, it was different. They reminisced a bit about the old days, but then then shifted to a discussion on a more spiritual level. They talked about praying with him over the phone on Sunday nights during his long battle with cancer.  They talked about their relationship with God, and Bill’s relationship with God (how on earth would they know, right?!).  They talked about flying into Chicago before one of his major surgeries and anointing him — a quick plane trip in and gone the next day.

The night of Bill’s funeral we drank many Guinnesses. A group of locals, including me, kept coming back to the same topic, beer in hand:  How had we not realized that Bill had such a spiritual side to him? We had spent so much time with him at kids’ games, playing golf, going to events, drinking beer. But he had something deeper with the California crew.

A few days later one of our circle of friends, Jack, had the courage to send an email to a group of about 50 men who we knew well (or thought we did). His message: How come we didn’t know Bill was so close with these guys and had such a close relationship with them on a deeper level?  And why can’t we do that now with each other?  He invited us over for an hour of fellowship — to talk about being a better husband, better father, better community member…and to talk about our weaknesses, our relationship with God, etc.

Fast forward to 2015. Our every-other week fellowship meetings are going strong. Any where from 12 to 20 of us show up.  We talk about deep topics — from mental illness to our relationship with God to how to have meaningful vacations with our kids. We’ve gotten to know each other at a much deeper level. We still drink a beer or two.

And we took it one step further. We started a non-profit in 2013 (www.TheLegacyGuild.com) to provide college scholarships to any student in our school district who has lost a parent. This year we’ll give away more than $80,000 in scholarships to 34 students — including Bill’s son.

What’s our purpose?  To go beyond ourselves. To dig deeper into who we are. To support each other during difficult times. To never forget those who have left us too soon.