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A Purpose-Riven Life

David Abramoff Ph.D.

As an émigré to these shores, I am familiar with the ambivalent place America holds in the hearts of those from other countries. An the one hand America represents a beacon of hope, a city on a hill to those from war-torn areas, victims of oppression and suppression or economic hardship, whose lives are less than hopeful. To these America represents the exuberant opportunity to remake one’s life and reap the reward of hard work, industry and luck.

But one person’s success is another’s excess. As consumers of 25 – 30 percent of the world’s resources, Americans have provoked the resentment and envy of others as the image of consumerism run amuck (a wonderfully evocative English word implying a pig rooting happily as well as someone gone insane).

Getting and spending precedes the Founding Fathers, of course. Entrepreneurs and settlers from the old world brought that notion with them to the new. But here it  flourished extravagantly among the purple mountain’s majesty and the amber waves of grain, becoming commingled with a religious, if not evangelical, impulse toward self-improvement.

A few years ago a colleague was going through a rough patch in life. Someone gave him Rick Warren’s book A Purpose-Driven Life. For several weeks my colleague read through the book with a group of men confronting their mid-life crises (and increasingly imminent mortality) and wondering what on earth it had all been for.

Th Greatest Showman on Earth

America is a nation which has always encouraged, if not compelled, people arriving on its shores to seek their purpose. The wretched refuse flock to its teeming shore fleeing atrocities, persecution or personal tragedy. And someone is waiting to sell them the means to making money, finding spiritual redemption or self-improvement. The great story of America is of prevailing against all odds to achieve success. It’s no accident that figures from P.T. Barnum to Andrew Carnegie are heroes. Everyone loves a winner, and to be assured by others achieving their goals that they can do the same.

And if not? Failure is not an option. For Americans not achieving one’s fifteen minutes of fame is a fate worse than death. Better to fade into the shadows like Andrew Carnegie’s father, a weaver from Scotland displaced by the relentless march of the industrial revolution. He brought his family to America in 1848 to seek a better life. By luck and pluck (combined with ruthless business practices and an indomitable will), his son succeeded. Carnegie père became an embarrassment. Since he did not fit the Horatio Alger version of the story, he was all but disowned by his own family and eldest son. Who now remembers William Carnegie’s name? He faded from the story for his failure to adhere to the proper narrative.

We are all immigrants from the existential beyond, strangers in a strange land lured by consumer culture promoting streets paved with gold and I-Phones with the latest apps and bling. We wonder what our mission-statement and goal are supposed to be. But our purposes can divide as much as unite us –from gun control to vegetarianism and global warming. Some of our causes take us to the dark side. John Brown believed it was allowable to kill in the name of abolishing slavery. Thoreau sympathized with him. What is the line between prophet and provocateur? Jesus came bringing not peace but a sword. Reverend Warren’s book describes Christ using explosives to blow open the doors of our resistance to God’s love for us.*

With A Terrible Swift Sword

My colleague called disturbed. He had seen the mayhem and death at the Boston Marathon interposed on his Smartphone between twitter feeds of celebrity gossip and Groupons for the latest products meeting his shopping profile. But there was more.

“The younger of the two alleged perpetrators is a dead ringer for my son.”

“Ah,” I said. “The young men from the family with a Chechen background.”

“Yes. Michael is in his late twenties now. When I saw the photo, I thought ‘My God, if I hadn’t just seen him, it could have been him in Boston, with dark eyes and hair, that smile.

“A good looking young man.”

“– Who with his brother did a terrible thing to innocent people.”

Who are the innocent? Thoreau might ask. Or Marx or Che. School children in Connecticut. People shot going to the movie theater for the evening. Or the mall. Too many.

I said, “They were promising young men. The older was a skilled boxer, a fighter who was contender for the golden gloves. The younger especially was talented, well-liked by his friends, winner of a scholarship.”

“The older brother said he would never understand Americans.”

“I don’t understand Americans. They don’t understand themselves.

“Their uncle called them losers.”

The worst epithet in America.

“The police caught him in that boat; the evil-doer wounded and bloodied. Everyone is cheering.” Why don’t I?”

“Perhaps they are cheering so loudly to avoid the anger and disappointment that are part of their lives and ours, and the violent feelings we all have.”

“That doesn’t make me want to blow people up.”

“The resemblance to your son disturbs you?” I said.


“It’s not your son.”

“He is somebody’s son! What would drive him to do such a thing?”

Young men are impressionable. The seek a way to belong, a cause to prove themselves worthy. It’s why they join gangs. Or the army. American society does not do a good job of helping people grow up and find a purpose. How much more difficult if you are a stranger?

Dzhokar’s brother’s heart of darkness apparently influenced him. Together they found one.

David Abramoff is Director Emeritus of Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies

*Rick Warren’s son Mathew committed suicide in April 2013 at the age of 27 after years of struggling with depression.


Our Institutions, Ourselves

Here at Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies we examine the received wisdom of crowds and other presumed or self-appointed sources of authority. The news so far in the first month of this year reassures us that our mission is not wasted.

The congress convenes, prosecutors prosecute, politicians pontificate, the media mediate (but not much meditate) on the sublime and the ridiculous: church and state, small and great. Financial institutions gain rewards from damaging the economy. Businesses profit from outsourcing and layoffs, while claiming to engage and value their workers. Organizations of higher learning declare their noble mission and beneficence in educating and building the character of students, while refusing responsibility for paying taxes, raising tuition or their own employees’ depredations.

There is no lack of souls looking for a cause with which to identify themselves. There is no more zealous fanatic than a convert. Lost souls and gifted people alike (who are often the same) seek a cause greater than themselves to belong to. Ideally, this leads to the greater good.

But there’s a fine line between the faithful and the fanatic (from Latin fanaticus “mad, enthusiastic, inspired by a god,” also “furious, mad”). As we immerse ourselves in the tribal identity of Republican and Democrat, Liberal or Conservative, the right to bear arms or freedom from wanton death and mayhem, we may invoke the darker angels of our nature. The darker side of devotion leads else elsewhere. Soldiers for the cause, whether volunteers or employees, along with the defenseless and the innocent, come to be seen by their leaders merely as expendable resources, along with ethics and accountability.

A colleague grew up in central Pennsylvania where they worship American football. Every fall people there dress in blue and white and drive past the crisp autumn leaves to attend the games in Happy Valley. In America uniquely sport tends to drive institutions of higher learning (and their contracts with cable television). Six-six, two-hundred fifty pound halfbacks and running backs subsidize the study of computer engineering and post-modern cultural deconstruction. The size of the elephant in the room sometimes obscures the cost of its care and feeding, and the sacrifices made for someone’s presumed greater good.

Charitable, governmental, educational, or business institutions can become corrupted when their own perpetuation becomes an end, rather than a means, to fulfilling their mission. Communism culminated in the toppling of the Berlin Wall, after the loss of millions of lives. Fascism led to worse. Its mirror image, McCarthyism, prompted an elected government in a free society to betray ideals of free speech and democracy and destroy lives of its fellow citizens. Even in America, land of liberty and libertarian , there is subtle or not so subtle pressure to wear the right clothes, say the right words and think the right thoughts.

Thomas Paine insisted on promoting an Age of Reason over religious dogma in his later years. This made him the unacknowledged founding father, with little honor in his own nation. John Locke wrote about the social contract that guides relations between the individual and civil society. Thomas Hobbes wrote about the unruly mob’s need to be led by some single unifying leader, whatever the cost to individuals. Between these two orbits we seek the golden mean.

The goal of an institution formed to find homes for the homelessness, end hunger or find a cure cancer should be to eliminate its own raison d’être. But the poor, the unborn, the disenfranchised will always be with us – as will young boys needing protection in the locker room or sacristy, and women from rapists in their community. Where fund raising, administration, marketing and promotion for social and charitable organizations become ends in themselves, effective leadership may lie more in knowing what side their bread is buttered on than feeding it to the hungry. If your livelihood depends on making the case for the need that keeps you in business, you may not be inclined to make it go away or take accountability for flaws in carrying out your mission. Thus the justice of your cause easily becomes justification for a host of ills.

Thoreau, the poster child for the environmental movement, wrote the beloved Walden preaching a transcendent, personal connection with the world. But Life Without Principle, his lesser-known essay contains words that would be considered subversive to the children of any middle class school district today:

  • The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward. To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse…
  • Perhaps I am more than usually jealous with respect to my freedom. I feel that my connection with and obligation to society are still very slight and transient

And to those obsessed with the trivia elevated to significance now on Facebook:

  • I am astonished to observe how willing men are to lumber their minds with such rubbish,to permit idle rumors and incidents of the most insignificant kind to intrude on ground which should be sacred to thought. .. It is so hard to forget what it is worse than useless to remember!

Thoreau was not an advocate of unbridled capitalism, nor for unthinking patriotism, that last refuge of scoundrels. The same man who argued for the love of nature pleaded for the life of a murderer and fanatic, John Brown, following the latter’s brutal murders in Kansas and insurrection at Harpers Ferry in the cause of abolition.

Rescuing puppies or ending global warming or electing a candidate depends on putting your cause in front of the right people and convincing them to ante up. More importantly, it depends on recruiting dedicated people and finding symbols who will support your cause through thick or thin, even at the expense of their own interests. Businesses and nonprofits have a host of ways now to reach out and declare their social conscience and how much they care. E-mail updates, Facebook invites and twitter feeds invite us daily to be part of of their communities and causes. But they don’t hold our hand in the middle of the night at the hospital or listen to us talk about what to do about our lousy jobs. And they quickly abandon us if we do not fit their agenda or prove a liability or embarrassment.

Thoreau died mostly forgotten at forty-five in the bedroom of his parents’ home surrounded by unsold books published at this own expense. Leon Trotsky, communism’s one time true believer and acolyte, was hunted down and murdered. Joseph McCarthy died a shunned alcoholic.

Human beings also aren’t merely icons for a cause, to be replaced by the new icon du jour. They don’t exist to promote brands or as algorithmic functions of their connections on Facebook. No man (or woman, or child) is an island. We are not merely our beliefs and needs devoted or subverted to the needs of institutions that do not mourn our passing or care about our true selves. As Nelson Algren, that troubadour of Chicago’s lower depths in the 1940s and 1950s, wrote in the Man with the Golden Arm, ‘We are all members of each other.’ – DA

David Abramoff, Ph.D., is Director Emeritus of Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies. Copyright 2013. For permissions and reprints please go to our Contact Us page.  We gratefully accept donations made through Fractured Atlas.

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