Finding a sense of purpose is a powerful thing. It’s a feeling some people spend their whole lives searching for. That sense that what are doing is not just important, but necessary, can be life-changing. Overwhelming. Exhilarating. Terrifying. Fulfilling. Even euphoric. Some find that purpose in their faith, others in service to the community around them. Some find it in standing up and fighting for what they believe in. Some, like I did, find it in times of crisis.
No matter where we find this greater purpose for ourselves, at it’s best it’s a high better than any drug – a positive force with the collaborative power to change the world. At it’s worst, it’s the pavement on the road to hell – a force hateful and destructive enough to fuel genocides. And telling the difference – especially within ourselves – is much harder that you might think.
When the twin towers fell in Manhattan, I began to glimpse the direction my life would take. And for a little while, despite all the good work I was able to do, it turned me into someone I never wanted to be. I’ve written so much about the beauty that existed in Ground Zero among the 1st Responders and our work there. It was an extraordinary time. But there is also something else worth talking about that’s a little more personal. And of all the things I’ve written about that time, this is the most difficult.
Running Backwards, Towards a Cliff
On the 13th of September 2011, standing in the gas station that used to be on the corner of Canal and the West Side Highway, surrounded by volunteers and supplies, I reminded myself to breathe. I had no idea what I was doing. I had arrived with a truck full of sandwiches and water. I had expected to deliver them and be sent on my way. But they didn’t send me away. So I stayed, because no one stopped me. I set out to organize a small piece of the chaos. I made myself busy. I slept in the back of a pickup truck because I knew I’d never get back in if I went home.
I simply kept working, and I met my team of six others just like me. We were unprepared and unqualified – and totally unwilling to leave. Through the smoke and smell of burning steel our lives slowly disappeared behind us. Our only goal was to be helpful – to be of use. For the first time in my young life, everything seemed clear.
We worked. As hard as we could for as long as we could stand up, we worked. Through a series of events either explained by luck, divinity or destiny, as the authority over the site changed we were repeatedly given the credentials to keep working. And somewhere in that work, fear, adrenaline, and exhausted laughter, I discovered who I was and what I was meant for. I knew it in my bones.
In the context of Ground Zero I also began to feel that my work was necessary, that the skills I was building were – in my own small way – required as a cog in the progress being made there. I mattered. I was important. I was completely addicted to the way that felt, and I was headed for a crash greater than anything I’d ever experienced. I never saw it coming.
Anatomy of a Purpose Bully
Somewhere in what I was learning, in the extraordinary things I was experiencing, I forgot how lucky I was. It might seem strange to think of being in Ground Zero as lucky, but that’s absolutely what it was. Within a city that felt paralyzed, where many lined up at the Red Cross or outside the barricades hoping to volunteer, the chance to be there was an honor. In the beginning, I knew that. I knew I was lucky to be able to help, but as time went on those words took on an emptiness. They were empty because I began to feel that my work was necessary. Emphasis on “my” work. And because I was so unaware of what was happening to me, and so high on my new purpose, I crossed the line between understanding that my work was important, and believing I was more important than those not there working with me. I began to foster in myself the ‘others don’t understand what we’re seeing here’ mentality, to secretly encourage the idea that my work and my pain and my struggle was more valid somehow than anyone who was further away.
Because I was spending all of my time with my relief team, I didn’t see the shift in myself. I only knew how simple everything seemed. How amazing. How clear my life was in what seemed like a time of such chaos and pain. I should have been far more concerned about the fact that I was starting to see the world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Not even the deeply misguided idea of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ that becomes so prevalent when people are suffering, but the separation between those of us working downtown and the ‘civilians’ outside of Ground Zero.
I began to feel sorry for people who couldn’t do what I was doing. I also began to resent them for it. To make assumptions and judgments about their lives and what I felt they were or were not doing. I began to feel alienated from my friends and family, but I rationalized it as the cost of this clarity of purpose that I had found – that they clearly lacked. I was awake and they were still asleep. I claimed I wanted them to understand even as I convinced myself that the growing distance between us was a sign of my own enlightenment. Even though I had only ever wanted to help, I had absolutely no idea how arrogant and self-righteous I had become.
Tequila and Tough Love
Luckily, I had the kind of friends willing to point it out to me. I’m sure that many close to me were sick of me and didn’t quite know how to tell me. It’s complicated when someone you see doing meaningful work is also turning into a jerk. It was my friend Mike who sat me down one night in late October. By then, my hardhat and respirator had become like safety blankets, and I would often stop at the bar on my way home still carrying them. My red security clearance tag was literally my red badge of courage. Often lost in trying to process whatever had happened on-site that day, I also wanted other people to see these things. To see who I was and what I was doing.
On this particular night, we were talking about volunteering. We were chatting about the donations they’d collected at Chelsea Piers, and I remember expressing frustration with how territorial I felt the Red Cross was being with their supplies. We started talking about what different people were doing to help. I don’t remember exactly what I said that set him off, but it was something to the effect of how, even though not everyone could be in Ground Zero, everyone should be doing something to help. And if they weren’t, they were ‘useless’. If you weren’t giving in some way then you had no value. I remember expressing my frustration with New Yorkers who were ‘just returning to their normal lives like nothing had happened’. I genuinely couldn’t understand how everyone couldn’t be focused on joining the recovery effort and I was absolutely judging them for it.
While my rant had started as a conversation, the more I talked the quieter Mike got. Finally (I must’ve stopped to take a breath), he leaned in, and in words that are now a vitriolic blur in my memory, he ripped into me. He asked me if I felt his grandmother was useless. That she wasn’t volunteering and so how did she fit into my new worldview. That she was fully occupied with what needed to be done to live her own life while trying to deal with what had happened, as many people were, and who the fuck did I think I was? Did I really think that everyone forcing their way downtown would actually be helpful? How delusional and spoiled did I need to be to believe that most people could drop everything in their lives to spend time in Ground Zero?
I remember being genuinely surprised that he was so mad at me. He tore through my rationalizations and arrogance with such heartfelt venom that I burst into tears right there in the bar.
For the record, I have never made a habit of crying in bars. In fact, at that point I hadn’t cried at all since September 11th. I left clinging to my hardhat and my denial, and cried for hours afterwards until I passed out. I fell asleep that night, as I often did, on a mattress in my living room watching CNN. I told myself he didn’t understand, he had misunderstood. Of course his grandmother was not what I meant and he was being unfair. I was one of the good guys.
But he’d rattled me in a way that only a good friend can rattle you. And there are few things more inwardly painful than being torn down off your high horse to realize that you are, in fact, the asshole.
Denial Fights Back
I wish that I could tell you that in one magical moment of conflict that I was cured. But that night was really just the first time I saw myself clearly for what I had become – and that it wasn’t all destiny and roses. In reality, it took months – maybe years – to separate the genuinely meaningful work that I’d done from the presumptions of others that I had made along the way. It took me a very long time to understand that there is a razor thin line between a sense of purpose and a sense of self-righteousness. It’s very hard to see, and it’s dangerous because it takes no conscious decision to cross it. But the moment I did, the world became ‘us’ and ‘them’, and the further I went, the more I valued one above the other. The further I went, the easier it became to rationalize the separation between who I was and who I was better than.
It got much worse for me when the work in Ground Zero ended, and all of a sudden I was pushed back into a world I thought I didn’t belong in. I had no idea that my behavior had become destructive long before it actually destroyed me. I was doing something good. How could there possibly be danger in that? But I had spent four months carving out a new identity for myself that, however well-intentioned, however valuable the work, revolved around separating myself from others.
Having to go home when it was over turned that identity to dust. I was lost. For a very long time. For years, it felt like nothing fit, nothing made sense, and nothing was real. I had become the wrong size and shape to fit into my own life. Even now, I sometimes still feel that. Even though there was nothing to be won, it felt like enormous failure. I felt like I’d died from the inside out. For the first few years, I think maybe I did. I wondered often if I was going to spend the rest of my life wishing I could go back to Ground Zero, and the worst part was that I couldn’t understand what I’d done wrong.
I’d like to tell you about how I found my way back, but all these years later I’m still sorting it out. I imagine I always will be. At some point I stopped trying to rail against a world that still feels all wrong to me, and started trying to build the one I wanted. I continue to seek out the opportunities that speak to my bones.
What I do know with certainty is that our collective search for meaning is not a competition – that was harder for me to learn than it should have been, and I know I’m not the only one. I’ve seen it so many times over the years. Even when trying to do good, we obsess over who we are in relation to others. But in the end, no matter where you draw your “us” vs. “them” lines – on a map, around an ideology or in a call to action – you will always be wrong.
And eventually, you’ll be the asshole.