I apologize in advance for this , for the possibility that you will find it maudlin or overblown. But isn't one of the defining features of an alert life in its third and terminal act, surely to look back, look forward, and to ask what this is all for? I have, and I continue to do so.
First Star has 50 teenage foster youth at UCLA, in one of our seven wildly successful Academies that span the four years of high school, designed to propel these students into college. Only half of American foster youth even graduate high school, and only 3 percent earn a Bachelor's Degree... but all our kids graduate from high school, over half go to a four year university, and a quarter go to a community college. Street hardened though most are, we try to teach them that it is OK for men to cry, and that from time to time they should allow life to give them the excuse.
There is a course I teach that creates this emotion often, and deeply. I call it "Random Acts Of Kindness and Pay it Forwards." For foster kids ages 14 to 18. For kids to whom life has dealt a raw deal. To youth, some with their toes sticking out the front of their shoes, who have been abused and neglected, to these innocent victims of life. I try to teach them that giving is the highest and noblest instinct of a human being, that it lifts us up, and that beyond anything else, it makes the world revolve every day.
I start by asking the class why, if Darwin was right, and if the world is a ruthless jungle where only the fittest survive, anyone would ever be kind. Why ever would a person pass a homeless man or woman sleeping on the sidewalk, and quietly slip a five dollar bill under their arm? Why do we feel moved to help those less fortunate, often anonymously and with zero personal benefit? We go on to define and discuss the Golden Rule, the sense of equity, of balance, of social and personal justice, that exists in the scriptures of every single religion of the 170 in the world. And then we ask, "But is it only religious?" and we parse the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which tells us that in any closed system, whether it is an engine, a garden, a family, a city or a planet, if external energy is not applied, entropy drives the system over time to random chaos : the engine seizes up if you don't oil it, the garden is full of weeds, the family implodes, the city is over-run with crime, and life on the planet dies out.
Generosity, I discover is not initially discernible in the soul of every 14 year old foster youth. If you get raped, beaten, starved and ignored enough, your thoughts do not automatically go to "How can I help others around me?" But the instinct is there, and at the end of the first semester, we have a competition where the students compete to help others. It gets to the point where nobody can do anything for themselves... it becomes a funny, happy shared humane experience in communal self-support.
The second semester, we introduce a shocking concept. We tell each student that one of our donors has anonymously put up some money, and thus each of them now has the ability to give away $200. There are rules: you can't give it to yourself. A cannot give it to B and then B gives it back to A. It is supervised, tight and the ethics are pretty clear. It starts with as written proposal by each student. Many are remarkable explorations of what really matters in a life. Jimmy wrote, "I am adding ten dollars of my own, because that makes $210. It takes $70 at the Pound to stop them killing a stray dog. And I am going to save three dogs. Because the last time I was there, I looked into the eyes of a puppy that had been badly beaten and I saw my own eyes, because I was beaten too."
And our stubborn, wonderful Karl wrote "I'm giving $200 to this Academy, because after I was expelled, I was given a second chance and let back in, and nobody ever gave me a second chance before that." And we said no, that Karl had personal benefit from his proposal. It did not meet the rules. And so he rewrote it and said "The rules will not allow me to give the $200 to the UCLA First Star Academy. So I am giving it to the University of Rhode Island First Star Academy." And we send the check to URI, and the thirty students there each wrote Karl a thank you note. And by the way, Karl is our male Class President, and his ambition after earning his Bachelors is to become an officer in the Marines, and teach Kinesiology and Athletic Conditioning. Karl's Mom has been in a coma since she gave birth to him 17 years ago.
Three months ago, we had our Christmas Party on Westwood Boulevard in a donated swanky restaurant. Afterwards, our 50 kids, their Peer Counselors and the rest of us stood on the sidewalk and waited for the vans to return the students to their Placements. And the head waiter came out, and asked me, "What do you want us to do with all the cupcakes left over?" And I said, "Put them in boxes and give them to the kids to take home. And he did.
Five minutes later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sam, one of our most troubled students, walking away from the group. All on his own, he walked up to a homeless man sitting a hundred feet away on the sidewalk. He smiled at him, and gave him his box with the muffin. And then he walked back and never said a word to anyone. I was so overcome by emotion that I had to take a little walk of my own.
And that, my dears, is the closest I can get to telling you the Meaning of Life. And if not every life, then for sure mine. You raise your kids, by a miracle they turn out fine, you love your wife and friends, you do random acts of kindness, and then you die. That's the best deal we can get, and it's pretty wonderful.
Rabbi Maimonides wrote a thousand years ago about the human soul having three layers. Everybody has the first two. But not everyone has the top one, the N'Shuma, and in fact nobody owns a N'Shuma of their own. Instead , it is like a membership society. A club of those who give a damn about the world. A society of the enablers, the helpers, the people who try to heal the world and make life better. And Maimonides says that when two people who belong to the N'Shuma meet, they feel as though they have known each other for a thousand years. They say "Hineini. Here I am" and they help each other and share great opportunities to heal our world.
I think that's me, I think it is what I am called to do, and I do believe it is the Meaning of Life. Or at least, the meaning of my life. Hineini.
Peter Samuelson is the producer of 25 movies, including "Revenge of the Nerds", "Wilde", "Arlington Road" and "Tom & Viv". Over 30 years, he has conceived of and run five major non-profits: www.starlight.org, www.starbrightworld.org, www.firststar.org, www.edar.org and www.aspirelab.org e: firstname.lastname@example.org