I’m at Cornell, teaching my now-annual statistics course to a group who have come up from the city and are there enrolled in a Masters program. Cornell requires students to spend time on campus before it awards degrees, maybe to prop up College Town, which is now half deserted.
My evenings are free, so when I saw the sign announcing, “Advanced Life-Purpose Philosophy Seminar”, I decided to go. It would let me kill time in the evenings and give me the chance to learn something new.
I got to Caldwell Hall at the appointed time, but I was the only one there. I wondered if I’d misread the sign. Finally, as I was about to leave, a man walked in. He had a manila folder stuffed with papers, some making their escape from the edges. He was fifty-ish, running to fat, his glasses pinning a badly realized comb-over to his ears. Jeans, of course, ill fitting, and a knit pullover that had seen better days. He spoke with a soft accent—Belgian, I guessed, but only after he told me his name was Verd Antoine.
We chatted about the always dismal weather and how he usually taught this class in the fall to undergraduates but because he was on sabbatical this year he switched to the summer.
“So, you’re looking for a Life Purpose?” he asked.
“Well, not exactly—”
“There are many ways to engage in a Life That Makes A Difference,” he cut me off, “but I shall teach you the optimal. Now, we can agree that the best life is one that changes the world, so?”
“I’d say that every person just by living changes the world in some way.” Seemed a trivial observation.
“And how can somebody change the world,” he went on, ignoring me, “unless he or she has a purpose?” He lifted his eyebrows in anticipation of my agreement. I shrugged my shoulders.
“The natural question becomes, ‘How does one arrive at a purpose?’ The obvious answer is to think of a problem that needs solving. And what problems need solving? All of them, of course, but does it not follow that the most pressing problems require the most immediate attention? And among those, don’t the most potentially damaging demand first look?”
“I suppose so.”
“Now, it is well known that what disaster is defined to be the most potentially damaging is in part subjective; it depends on the life story of the individual, so? We must carry out an exercise that will allow you to find out what potential disaster is most meaningful to you. Ready?”
“Sure.” I tried to peek at the clock without making it too obvious.
“I want you to use your imagination. Can you do that for me?” I nodded and he went on. “I want you to create a vision of a trifling annoyance. Then slowly let that small itch become a raging infection. Imagine it infecting the largest group of people you can think of. Do you have something?”
“I…almost.” This wasn’t easy; by nature I am too cheerful.
“Any small vexation will do! Find it and let it grow. Work on your fundamental fear and irrationality. Call to the innermost part of your being where you are most primitive. Look to the place where Worry is trapped free it, set it loose! What do you see?”
His words were hypnotic and I felt myself falling away. Suddenly, visions came upon me! “Yes! The CERN facility might create a black hole to suck us all up! Obama wasn’t a natural-born citizen and will take over all private businesses on his path to dictatorship! Global warming will destroy us all by increasing temperatures by almost a whole degree Celsius! Evolution will no longer be taught in schools thus some students won’t appreciate fully the golgi apparatus! Second-hand smoke increases the anxiety in non-smokers that smokers are enjoying themselves more than non-smokers! The horror! The horror!”
I slipped into a black reverie and experienced eschatological fantasies of millions suffering minor inconveniences that could be avoided if only I could do something. I awoke to find my shirt covered with tears but I had no memory of shedding them.
Antoine was silent for a moment; then he said, “You now see that in order for mankind to be happy, you must be able to believe the worst that can happen will happen. You must become miserable. And only when you learn to spread your torment to others, only when all share your agony, only then can the world reach a state of perfection.”
He reached into his folder and withdrew a paper, took out a pen and wrote something on it. “Here,” he said, “Display this proudly.”
It read “Certificate of Activism“, and it had my name on it.