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What is the meaning of life?

by staff

Anjail Ahmad • Poet

“In my heart of hearts, there doesn’t seem to be any meaning to life,” says Anjail Ahmad, director of NC A&T University’s creative writing program. “Like, ‘Let’s get a book to look it up. Here it is’… here’s the meaning of life!'”

As a poet, Ahmad considers it her job to observe what others overlook or choose not to see, connecting things that might at first seem unrelated and upsetting people’s assumptions about the nature of things.

The meaning of life?

“That’s like saying, ‘What’s the meaning of green grass?’ or, ‘What’s the difference between a red tulip and a yellow tulip?’ That’s an expression of life like I’m an expression of life.”

Ahmad started regularly using a cane in 2001 as glaucoma gradually robbed her of her sight. While her vision is now limited to streaks of light from the window and sometimes the vague outlines of people or objects, she retains a vivid sense of color.

“I know when I look at the green grass I feel very purposeful,” she says. “I always wondered, ‘Why don’t we get tired of green grass or blue sky.’ Other things, like blue curtains – ‘I’m tired of those blue curtains.'”

Ahmad suggests meaning is an artificial construct or an elusive property – never a hard and fast certainty with exclusive claims.

“Our making meaning is part of needing that sense of control,” she says. “Looking up at the big dome of sky we see the vastness of it. Nature, as beautiful as it can be -‘ nature can wipe us out.

“Even in this moment,” Ahmad adds, “my sense of the meaning of life may be different than it was ten years ago. Maybe the meaningfulness of life for me and you might be different, but does mine negate yours? No. Is yours wrong? No.”

Maybe we just need to shut up more often, she speculates.

“We’re very comfortable doing stuff, not comfortable not doing, being with the mystery,” Ahmad says. “In our culture we’re encouraged to be active. When the mind is not engaged in thinking, answers come. When we can reach a place of surrender, answers come. Maybe we can get some meaning then.”

– JG

Cpl. Art Hollis • Greensboro Police Department

“What life means to me and what it means to other people might not be the same thing. We’re all here for whatever reason and life challenges us every day to do better, to impose on yourself to do better. This day and then the next, and, hopefully, the one after that. At work and at home and at play.

“My job is a big challenge. To live by the golden rule, which is to treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. Some times are harder than others to do that but I think it is very important. Guys on the force sometimes have that, the guys who do dirty jobs, but they are great guys. You don’t join the police force to become rich. It’s like teachers or nurses – you have to want to help. It’s not about the money. I am not here to see how many people I can put in jail either. I hope that I can influence people for the better without doing that.

“I’ve been in the force for twenty years and sometimes it is hard to see the good in each day but I try. We all have to live life to the fullest and see the best each day because you may not be here tomorrow.”

– SA

Rev. Zeb Holler • Retired pastor

He’s been working at it for some time now, hammering out a draft that will be the first of a series of sermons to represent his life and work. Retired as pastor of the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant since 1993, the Rev. Zeb Holler has refined a singular message, and at the age of 78 he retains the preacher’s weakness for volubility.

“What was Jesus up to?” the pastor asks. “What was he trying to do? As far as I can see he wasn’t trying to prove something about himself or get people to worship him and build cathedrals. What he was interested in was to see God’s care for the world. His saying for the disciples was, ‘Blessed are the ones who hear the word of God and do it.'”

Holler’s Jesus is a social revolutionary.

“It involved his complete identification with the poor, the left out, the degraded and the rejected,” he says. “He focused his efforts on them – those who were in greatest need. As for the others, those who were living off the exploitation of the poor, he was straight, spoke the truth as he saw it without fear. It doesn’t do them any good to be a plunderer. It warps, twists and destroys your soul.”

Jesus radically challenges the class structure, Holler suggests.

“He dared touch the leper,” he says. “Excorisms and all that -‘ those were acts of inclusion. That’s the way it is. He’s not interested in tricks. He wants to welcome people to the community.”

As a churchman Holler’s career bears the hallmarks of both principle and ambition. He served in the Navy as an intelligence officer during the Korean War, attended seminary in Virginia and later pursued doctoral studies in Scotland, led a large church in Atlanta at the time of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, served as chaplain at NC State at a time when students were buffeted by the upheaval of the sexual revolution and eventually returned to pastor the church of his childhood.

It’s not exactly Jesus’ life, but one can see the stamp of his influence.

“Jesus is an astonishing person, someone who has had a great effect on at least our part of the world,” Holler says. “He was poor, he was deserted at the end, he didn’t go for fame or fortune, and he didn’t try to get a bunch of impressive followers.”

He keeps coming back to this notion of a subversive gospel for a countercultural community.

“I think the meaning is to be found in community with God and one’s neighbors, whoever they may be,” Holler says. “The clue is to be found in Jesus, as he taught, as he lived, as he died. Death cannot stop what God wills for creation. I sort of fall into the arms of God.”

– JG

BJ Barnes • Guilford County Sheriff

When we first pose the question to Sheriff BJ Barnes, his response was, “Ohhh-kayyyy’….”

Now he reclines in a chair behind the expansive desk that occupies a back corner of his realm; entering the vast space you might miss the desk at first glance, especially if the North Carolina flag, fake hearth and prodigious collection of military and law enforcement mementos prove sufficiently distracting.

Times are good. Barnes is closing in on his 12th year as sheriff of Guilford County and the voters have given him the collective nod for another four. And the sheriff does not shrink from a challenge so he gives it a shot.

“I suspect I’m as confused as anybody else what the meaning of life is,” he says.

When he thinks about it, he concludes that the meaning of life is in cultivating personal honor, tending to family and giving something back.

Barnes grew up in a single-parent household in a High Point public housing project.

“My mother worked in a hosiery mill, and then she would go work in a drug store,” Barnes says. “I was a latchkey kid before it became a name. So I had to watch my younger brother. To be quite frank, there were times when we didn’t have enough to eat.”

His mother gave three bicycles to a charity group to distribute to poor children this Christmas. The reason for her generosity is plain to her sheriff son: She remembers when she couldn’t afford to buy gifts for her children.

“My mother told me a long time ago that you come into this world nekkid, and you leave without anything, but you can leave behind a good name,” Barnes says. “I have yet to see anybody in a coffin with a trailer hitched behind.”

– JG

Nalini Dorasamy, Math teacher, Jefferson Elementary

• native of South Africa

You can’t move on as a human being if you can’t forgive. I think South Africans can teach the world a lesson in forgiveness. If we harbored all the ill feelings we could have as a people and a nation for all the injustice I think we would be in a very sad place, but we’re not.

– AK

Frank Russell • Visual artist, gallery owner

“When I was 23 I wasn’t planning on seeing 30.”

“When you’re trying to be a parent – I mean really trying to be a parent, not just someone who has kids – that has taught us how to be more effective and loving people. Being a support system for others – you find out it isn’t just a matter of caring; it’s knowing how to care effectively.”

“When my son Matthew was ten he said, ‘What people really need is love and a little massage.’ I thought that was neat. I’m really glad I didn’t kill him when he was 17.”

“Coffee helps. [It] makes it a little bit easier to giggle.”

“Enlightenment. That’s the only thing that makes sense consistently throughout [my] 50 years on the planet. You get wisdom if you live long enough and screw up enough.

“[Art is] communication of feelings, ideas, beliefs’… you know, courage, fear’… these are collectively, I don’t know, enlightenment. When you’re an artist you’re sort of trafficking in enlightenment. You’re kind of a bliss merchant.”

– BC

Fred Guttman • Rabbi, Temple Emanuel

“Three different things come to my mind. I think, from a Jewish perspective, that the meaning of life is to bring more holiness into the everyday experience. Getting up in the morning should be a holy action. Going to bed should be a holy action. Seeing someone you haven’t seen in a while. In Jewish tradition we are supposed to thank God a hundred times each day. I don’t know too many who do, but think how our lives would be if we did.

“Number two: In Judaism there’s a concept of ‘repairing the self.’ How can I, through the exertion of my self control, become a better person, less reactive, less angry, more spiritual? There are certain qualities we define in ourselves that we have to work on. Through prayer and the study of texts for inspiration we try to do this.

“Third is ‘repair the world.’ We are to be God’s partners in the process of creating a better world, a world where children don’t go to bed hungry’… where there’s health care that’s accessible and affordable, where everybody has the spark of the divine, where charity is not a choice but an obligation. These are just some of them.”

– BC

Bruce Piephoff • Songwriter, performer

Suffering. That’s basically it.

“It’s true that you learn through sticking it out through these terrible times,” says Greensboro songwriter Bruce Piephoff. “You’re going to have good times and bad times. You know how you go through the hard times, and it seems like through the hard times you learn more?”

Piephoff is an eclectic collector when it comes to conclusions about the meaning of life. He takes a little from family. Tossed-off gems from singer-songwriter heroes like Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt. Some hard-boiled poetry. A dash of eastern religion. A line from the movies.

“I think it was in a movie with Paul Newman,” he says. “His character says, ‘The strong must help the weak.’ I think he plays an alcoholic lawyer.

“Another one is a line from Bukowski: ‘Grin through the pain to survive.’

“The meaning of life, it just seems like you get older and you think you’re going to acquire all this wisdom; and you understand less. It’s a horrible, terrible world in many ways. You’re born into it and you have no instructions, so you just struggle along.”

Piephoff holds a bleak view of the cosmos, but it is one not devoid of humanity or redemption.

“One thing I learned from my wife is basically being oriented towards doing things for other people and thinking about other people makes the journey a little easier, rather than being immersed in your own suffering. The Buddhists say life is suffering.

“It’s like in that documentary about Townes Van Zandt, Be Here to Love Me. The interviewer says, ‘Why are your songs so sad?’ and Townes says, ‘Oh, life is not sad?’ Then he also says you gain something from sadness. There’s a lot of humor in it’….

“Hopefully that suffering, if it’s not deserved, can redeem you in some way. My dad always says, ‘Suffering that is undeserved you can take to the bank.'”

– JG

Mrs. Grace • Psychic

“Every minute in this life is precious. People don’t know what tomorrow might bring. Money isn’t everything either, some people have millions of dollars and they are still miserable. The main thing is God. You’ve got to think about Jesus, especially around Christmas time. Without Jesus there wouldn’t be any Christmas!

“You have to have a good life here on earth, a religious life too. This life is like being in college. We all have to see what kind of life we can lead here which will lead to our next life, which is eternal. You have to get with God. He’s got a purpose for you in this life. You have to live in the best way you can. God and the devil challenge you with trials and tribulations and you have to focus to prove that you are worthy. You have to be worthy to get to the next life because it is the next life that counts. You live here for, what, eighty or ninety years? But the next life is eternal. Either heaven or hell. This life is a test. Why else does God put us here for only a short time and then in Heaven forever? You have to be worthy. He has to see how you do down here first to see if you are worthy for the next life. You get a lot of shots. God lets you sin but to be allowed into heaven you have to ask for forgiveness many times.”

– SA

Gary Rosenkrantz • Philosopher

“Does anything in our life ultimately mean anything?” he asks. “Well, whatever it is we do or accomplish as human beings will eventually disappear when the sun expands or the universe contracts or whatever, right?

“If you look at what life is for in its totality, in the spiritual, psychological and physical sense, Aristotle wrote that the goal of life is to flourish. What it is for a human being to flourish is particular to the human.

“Human nature includes the element of rationality. What the goal of life is is to attain happiness. The way to do that is to have an ordered plan, and the plan has to be consistent with happiness.

A human being cannot flourish if their happiness is contingent on two contradictory goals, Rosenkrantz, says, using the example of a person wanting to be both a concert pianist and a karate champion. All the karate chopping would render their hands useless for classical music.

“Aristotle thought that one of the most important goals was understanding the world around you. That’s why he was a philosopher.”

– AK

Roy Carroll • Developer

Seated beneath a fiberglass replica of the Pacific blue marlin he caught off the coast of Mexico, developer Roy Carroll seems to swim in the cool, blue décor of his North Eugene Street headquarters. Aside from the fish itself, the man’s starchy dress shirt and the plush cushions of his couch sing the azure theme.

One travels a labyrinthine warren of hallways past several secretaries to get to this sitting room, and it’s not even the inner sanctum of the big man’s office. Carroll characterizes the neighborhood as “tumbleweeds” at the time he moved his business to this one-story building more than a decade ago.

And now that the Bellemeade Village project across the street has hit the shoals, all eyes are Carroll’s rehabilitation of the old Wachovia building on North Elm Street, which is re-envisioned as the mixed-use residential and retail Center Pointe project, with condos listing at between $182,000 and $500,000.

The 44-year-old Carroll makes it sound like a bit of a fluke that he ended up with this hand – something unforeseen at the time he was a self-described struggling college student.

“I always liked real estate,” he says. “It was sheer coincidence. A friend suggested that we go get our real estate licenses because the class we wanted to take was filled.”

When it comes to his perception of the meaning of life, all this downtown development is not exactly at the center of it.

“In order of importance, number-one is my spiritual life,” Carroll says. “I’m a Christian. Faith plays a very important part in my life. I was brought up in a God-fearing household. I had a blue-collar upbringing but a very wholesome upbringing. Next most important to me is my family. I’ve got a very supportive wife. I work a lot and I’m gone a bit. I attribute a lot of my success to her.”

– JG

Max Carter • Campus ministry coordinator, Friends Center/Guilford College

Max Carter, a descendent of the earliest Quakers, sits with his back to a low, spitting fire and points to his navy blue sweater.

“The Quaker testimony of simplicity, what many people associate with Quakers, the dull grays, drab, collarless shirts is not so much rooted in our Scottish ancestry and penuriousness but in a deep sense that we can lead lives of deeper meaning if we eliminate the unnecessary from our lives we can focus on that that has lasting meaning.

“Fix your sights on those things that are lasting: relationships, love, justice, God ‘… those things don’t pass away. In Christian terms it’s ‘Seek ye first God’s reign.’

“Friends seek a community of equals. It’s led Quakers into very meaningful engagement with some of the great social issues of the day: the Underground Railroad which began here on this campus in 1819 in the South; the women’s rights movement which was led by so many powerful Quaker women like Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul. Indian rights work. Prison reform. Health reform.

“Life is made more meaningful in living lives on integrity’… being honest and authentic in all that we do. For Quakers, religion is not a Sunday morning show that you put on but also a life that you live.

“We find meaning in life in seeking peace, justice, nonviolent resolution to conflict, removing those impediments to people living up to their full human potential by removing those sources of injustice and oppression that get in the way of people’s living lives of meaning.

“Quakers as a Christian faith certainly put a lot of meaning in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are the peacemakers, love your enemy. We find that although it may be difficult, when we live up to those ideals we find that our lives are far more meaningful.

“Truth-seeking is not just an individual process, it’s a communal process and we come to a larger understanding of truth and meaning as we come together to share what truth has been given to us.”

Ultimately, Carter says, God exists within all of us.

“Quakers believe that the light that comes from God and dwells in all people regardless of race, creed, color and that gives meaning to our lives as well.”

– AK

J Bond • MC

One half of the hip-hop duo Illpo, whose singles “She Rollin” and “Upsouth Anthem” are currently rocking MySpace and the Triad’s clubs, J. Bond subscribes to a belief that might be endorsed by Syracuse University professor Arthur C. Brooks, author of Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism: it’s all about giving, not getting.

“On my obituary they’re not going to talk about what I got,” says the MC whose government name is Jermaine Brown. “They’re going to talk about what I gave, how many people I touched. They never say, ‘Yeah, well he got a brand new car back in 2004,’ but they would say, ‘He did give his time to a youngster in Big Brothers.'”

J. Bond describes his style on the mic as energetic, vocal, flamboyant, strong and thought-provoking. He says, “Illpo is one of the strongest forces on the North Carolina hip-hop scene.”

J. Bond’s stated priorities are pretty simple. “My life is directly affected by my family -‘ my family, my friends and my city,” he says. “Those are the three things I could touch and have any effect over. If I was on the scale of Fantasia was, I would say the world. On the scale I’m at I can touch my city. People know about Illpo.”

And who holds the most influence over the MC’s ethos of giving?

“Jesus. ‘Cause he gave the greatest gift of all.”

– JG

Glenn Newsom • Student psychologist, Greensboro Day School/private practice

“It’s really important for people to identify the gifts that they bring into the world. One of the most fascinating things to me is how everyone has gifts, right, and some of us tend to be more connected and conscious and specific about what those gifts are, and the people I see living the most effective kind of lives have a really good sense of that and they don’t fight that, they go with it. So instead of trying to be something that they’re not very well suited to do they find their groove and then they really throw themselves into it.

“One perspective that I’ve had the chance to gain with people who are dying or struggling with chronic illness, the main message that I get from those folks is ‘focus on the relationships in your life.’ They’re not thinking about the deal they didn’t close at work. They’re not thinking about, you know, honestly they’re not thinking as much about their accomplishments in life as you would think.

“And I think for me, the thing that kind of gives me chill bumps then is this idea of, you know, find your groove and then nurture your relationships and good stuff has gotta happen from that.

“So many people have the support systems that they need and they don’t access them. A lot of unhappiness, a lot of depression from the pathology side of it is because people don’t lean towards being nurtured by others. In a sense that’s what counseling is about.”

– AK

Cynthia Parks •Guidance counselor,

Andrews High School

When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.

– Acts 9: 26-27

“My favorite character is Barnabas,” says Cynthia Parks, guidance counselor for the seniors at Andrews High School in High Point who are preparing to take their first steps into what is euphemistically called the “real world.”

“He’s the encourager. ‘You can do, you can do.'”

Several years ago she taught English and career skills to the orphaned African teenagers who are famously known as “the lost boys of Sudan.”

“This is a new start,” she told them. “Let’s see what you can do because there’s a lot out there.” She would add: “Don’t be discouraged if you can’t do it all right now. It might take a generation.”

Case in point: “My mother got an eighth-grade education. She grew up in wartime Germany.”

Like any good guidance counselor, Parks places a lot of emphasis on setting goals.

Her advice for her seniors: “I think they should find their passion. They should look beyond college rather than wanting to go to college just because everybody goes to college. The saddest thing is when you ask someone where they see themselves in ten years and they say, ‘I don’t know.'”

Advising high school seniors, teaching Sunday school and raising three children provides Parks ample opportunity to act out her purpose.

“As a Christian woman it’s basically to serve and help people as much as possible,” she says. “It’s not what I do; it’s who I am. So it’s not like a job, although it can be a job sometimes. I love working with the kids.”

-‘ JG

Fred Chappell

North Carolina poet laureate, 1997-2002

“The meaning of life is life. That’s like asking, ‘What is the infinity of aroma?’ or ‘What is the color of algebra?'”

– JG

Teresa Staley • Poet

“What is the meaning of life?” asks Teresa Staley, cracking a giant smile.

“I was trying to think about what was unique about my life in trying to answer this question and probably it was that when I was diagnosed, I was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at 13 months, and my parents were told I would only live two years. It was sort of like anything beyond that was always a surprise and a bonus. I guess life was kind of measured in how long you have and how the length of what I had was always a surprise. It kind of formed the way that I see life.

“I do recognize that everything is very temporal. I kind of wonder sometimes if that’s why I ended up becoming a poet, because of that sort of view of life. Because I think about the whole Our Town thing, you know that speech about ‘Does anyone ever know what it means to live? Maybe the saints and the poets they do some.’ And I definitely don’t think of myself as a saint so well, yeah, I’ll go the poet route.”

When Staley was an undergraduate at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian College, three friends died over a single Christmas break. One of them perished from complications of muscular dystrophy, another suffered an aneurysm and the third drowned. Staley sought guidance from a professor. She asked him “Why?”

“I don’t think that’s the question you need to be asking,” he said. “I think the question you need to be asking is why are you still here?”

“I guess I always felt like we’re all here to help each other out and to deliver messages to each other. A lot of times people forget how important they are to each other in getting people through this whole process.”

– AK

Matt Hill Comer • Gay rights advocate

Matt Hill Comer, a 20-year-old gay rights activist, is standing outside Tate Street Coffee. He’s fresh from his last final exam and interested in talking a little history.

“I grew up very patriotic and I grew up learning about all of the things the founding fathers did, all of the ideals and expectations for our country that they embodied documented in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”

He goes on.

“I believe that LGBT people have not quite reached the place that was envisioned by our founding documents.

“The founding fathers had a vision that was so far ahead of their time and they did everything humanly possible to write that vision down. But, you know, it was so far ahead of their time they didn’t even realize how far ahead it was. They had these great principles written in the Declaration of Independence and then just a few years later we had the Constitution that counted African Americans and slaves as just a part human. They didn’t even realize the implications of their vision.

“I grew up in a very religious background that stressed faith in God and faith in Christ and service to others. It’s not just about you, everything in your life affects those around you. I also grew up in a very large family, so I very quickly learned that everything you do in your life affects everyone else around you. We all live in one common thread and we all have to work together in order to get something done.

“I still strongly believe in salvation. But I’ve also learned growing up that salvation is all on you, it’s not something you can push on someone else. Salvation is something that’s personal between that person and God. You can’t insert yourself into the relationship someone has with God.

“A lot of that came from growing up and coming out and realizing I was gay and experiencing the backlash from other people. “

– AK

David Price • Firefighter, Greensboro Fire Department

“Hmmm’… it changes. One day I would like to say it’s living your life like there is no tomorrow but that is not always the case – having children changes things, but still you should try to live your life to become the most that you can possibly be.”

“Having a baby on the way has changed things a little. If I had something to tell him about the meaning of life it would be that I am still learning.

“Before this, I was a teacher and a coach. I always had the desire to help people. I was a physical education teacher. I taught football and basketball and there is nothing that has made me happier than seeing people learn. We just like helping people, even when we don’t get thank yous.

“A personal experience of mine when I was sixteen years old made me aware of how fragile life can be. You have to do things the first time because you might not get a second chance. I had a car crash when I was sixteen and I almost didn’t make it. It made me realize that life can stop in one second and then you are done. There is not a second chance to live your life. It’s not a practice run. As a fire fighter that is obvious; we hear about things everyday.”

– SA

Al Lineberry, Hanes Lineberry Funeral Homes

“I’ve never been to a funeral service where something positive wasn’t said and you generally leave with a positive feeling that life is worth living.”

“Every life is successful.”

“One of the most successful persons I’ve known is a lady by the name of Linda Jones and she died 4 to 5 years ago. She had very meager means, had 4 to 5 kids. Her life made a difference while she was still here and is still making a difference because she loved people.”

– AK

Pramaha Somsak Sambimb • Head monk,

Greensboro Buddhist Center

The outside of the Greensboro Buddhist Center looks like it’s seen better days. Bald patches dot the front yard. Paint peels off the columns and molding.

Inside the meditation room it’s a different story: The wood paneling is polished to a high shine. Buddha statues and candlesticks sit stacked several deep. Padded floors have been softened by the knees of the faithful.

Pramaha Somsak Sambimb, the head monk, gathers his orange robe and seats himself.

“According to Buddhist teaching, you know, life is suffering. As soon as you open your eyes, you see that everything is not good, you know.

“The way to stop suffering is through rebirth. To get enlightenment will bring peace. It’s not easy for all of us but you have to fight with all of the trouble.

“Buddhism tries to set the rules, precepts, for human beings – like no killing, do no wrong in sexuality, no lying, no stealing, no drinking alcohol. That’s the way to make your life easy and good to live in the society.”

Human beings cannot blame God or anyone else for their problems, Sambimb says. Then he looks toward the Buddha and sighs.

“The world today is so bad. If you follow the precepts, everything will be okay, it will be peace and happiness all the time. But the world is a big problem. Nobody follows the rules.”

– AK

Don Steinmetz • Retired Pennsylvania highway worker

After 23 years of painting highway traffic lines in Pennsylvania, Don Steinmetz retired to Heritage Greens Retirement Community in Greensboro.

“My daughter and granddaughter are here,” he explains. “In Climax. When I retired I said, ‘If I get two good years I’m satisfied.’ I retired in ’91 and I’m still going.”

The retirement is his privilege after a life of hard work.

“From ’79 to ’91 I worked two jobs,” he says. “I did my 10 hours working for the state and on Saturday and Sunday I used to drive a limousine back and forth from the Philadelphia airport. I had this one woman, I was driving down the Schuylkill Expressway, she says, ‘What if we get to the airport and I say I have no money?’ ‘Then you have no luggage,’ I said. ‘That’s the way it works.'”

Steinmetz also sees life as somewhat dictated by duty.

“I did my share,” he says. “Our whole family was in the service except for my mother. They took my father when he was 37 years old’… they put him in the infantry under ‘Blood and Guts.’ Patton. ‘… I was drafted in the Marine Corps. No matter what you did, you got the business. I did my ten weeks in Parris Island, then I went to Miami. Florida. When it started getting cold they shipped me up North. I did my last year at Cherry Point.”

With his working years spent in the call of duty, in retirement he finds time for reflection.

“Something would happen [in life] and I’d think, ‘Why me?'” he says. “And after a while it turns around and it all comes out for the best. If you do what’s right, the man upstairs will take care of you.

“I must be doing something right,” he adds. “I lived this long.”

– BC

Dr. Arthur Vernon Stringer • Central Carolina OBGYN

Dr. Stringer, who has been delivering babies in Greensboro since 1986, has been present for the first moment of life for “well over a thousand” babies.

“I will tell you it is a wonderful experience for the parents, but even for the caregiver. Even after twenty-four years it is still a wonderful experience to help a couple bring their child into the world, to be there when that child takes his first breath, to be there when the parents hold the child for the first time. It’s still a wonderful thing.

“Oftentimes as humans with a, generally speaking, higher intellect than most other beings, we think we have some great edge over everything else. But just like most other creatures we have the same instincts, for example the issue of nesting, that preparing for the birth of a new person. Men do it too, we start to nest, we start to clean up, we start to prepare. We do it time and time again. This is what God intended – to prepare for this new being.

“I’ve been doing it for a long time. For the person having their first baby it’s still exciting and it’s still exciting for me, too. And it’s been this way for thousands and thousands of years. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

– BC

McKenzie • Exotic dancer, Christie’s Cabaret

The leggy 21-year-old from Kernersville who goes by the stage name McKenzie has been on her own since she was 16 and many of the things she’s learned in life center around getting what she wants with the formidable tools at her disposal.

“I talk a good game,” she says. “It will get you far. As long as you know how to talk to somebody you can get what you want, pretty much. Don’t be naïve. People will always try to talk you into something, but have your facts together before you get into it. And don’t be a pushover. Everybody loves a pushover for a reason: because you can get what you want out of them.”

And though she’s relatively young, she’s nailed down some empirical truths to living a good life.

“The more goals that you set, the more you accomplish, the better you feel about yourself,” she says. “Always be humble and be thankful, always try to help other people because you will get it back in more ways than you know.”

And though she’s seen her share of hard knocks, her philosophy of life is rosy.

“My meaning of life is being able to have a fresh start every day and making it what you want to make it.”

– BC

Ed Whitfield • Social activist/social analyst

“It strikes me that even though I grew up in a traditional religious home I have since that time had reasonable questions about what the best use of that is,” says Ed Whitfield, an Arkansas native who came of age during the high tide of the black liberation struggle in the mid-to-late 1960s. “I’m convinced that a meaningful life is not about finding meaning, but creating meaning.”

Whitfield is immortalized in a 1969 Associated Press photograph that shows him emerging from Willard Straight Hall at Cornell University armed with a rifle as he and other student activists ended a building takeover during an effort to pressure the university to introduce a black studies program. (The students succeeded in their cause, by the way.)

Today he’s headed to Kiser Middle School in Greensboro to volunteer as a reading tutor and “to commiserate with them about how much they hate school.”

“I’ve told people for a long time that there are three things I’m interested in pursuing: seeking truth, creating and appreciating beauty and struggling for justice,” Whitfield says. “There’s something about love that somewhere I guess I ought to connect with that. People have said that everybody should have something to live for, and something they’re willing to die for. I would add to that: someone to love, to share it with.”

A senior electronics specialist at Lorillard Tobacco by profession, Whitfield adds: “I have precious little personal ambition. If I wanted to be rich and famous I’d have done it by now. People are always asking me to get involved in some scheme to better myself. I can have no pleasure in a world full of misery.”

– JG

George Galbreath • Testimonial speaker

“I’m ushering at the church,” George Galbreath recalls. “I didn’t believe. It just gave me something to do, and I like wearing nice clothes. I see this gray-shaped octagon figure. Every time it moved it made this wind sound and it came through my ear and out the other end. It said, ‘You need to stop drinking.’

“I went home and I’m gonna pour me something,” he continues. “It said again, ‘You need to stop drinking.'”

Three days later Galbreath went on an alcoholic binge and drove his vehicle off the road.

“I went to a treatment center on January 27, 2003,” he says. “On January 30 the doctor came for me and told me there was nothing he could do for me unless I had a heart attack, a stroke, an aneurism or all three because my blood pressure was too high. He told me, ‘Call on your higher power.’

“My face was shifting and twisting,” he continues. “I said my first prayer. I said, ‘If you take away my headache and the alcohol and let me see my daughter grow up I’ll do your will.'”

Later, when the doctor told him he had shouted at him in his semi-conscious state, Galbreath wondered why the doctor’s voice sounded so far away. The fact is Galbreath was near death.

“I wasn’t far away,” the doctor replied. “You were. The last thing that goes is your hearing.”

So ended a 35-year career as an alcoholic.

Galbreath sells beauty products and works as nurse technician at a hospice care center these days, but his true vocation is testimonial speaking. Without embarrassment he tells this and other stories to high school students and church youth groups, not to mention juvenile offenders in the Guilford County court alternatives program.

His downward spiral picked up momentum in 1985 when Galbreath, then a Guilford County jailer, was arrested for supplying inmates with heroin and cocaine and doing drugs with them.

“I could dance, I could drink, I could fight,” he says. “I thought that was something. I grew up abusive. You ask me, have I ever hit a woman? I have. Am I proud of it? No. Will I do it again? No.”

Galbreath believes his behavior was a response to the pain of his father’s absence from his childhood and witnessing his mother get beaten by her boyfriend as she worked to support her children. His theme since recovery has been acknowledging and letting go of his hurt, and making amends for the pain he dealt in turn to his family.

He makes no claims about the meaning of life for anybody but himself.

“For me to share my life, my good, my bad, my foolish ways, my hurt, my pain that I caused myself and others – that’s my purpose,” Galbreath says. “Just maybe it might inspire or motivate someone else to look at their behavior in life and change their ways.”

– JG

George Galbreath • Testimonial speaker

“I’m ushering at the church,” George Galbreath recalls. “I didn’t believe. It just gave me something to do, and I like wearing nice clothes. I see this gray-shaped octagon figure. Every time it moved it made this wind sound and it came through my ear and out the other end. It said, ‘You need to stop drinking.’

“I went home and I’m gonna pour me something,” he continues. “It said again, ‘You need to stop drinking.'”

Three days later Galbreath went on an alcoholic binge and drove his vehicle off the road.

“I went to a treatment center on January 27, 2003,” he says. “On January 30 the doctor came for me and told me there was nothing he could do for me unless I had a heart attack, a stroke, an aneurism or all three because my blood pressure was too high. He told me, ‘Call on your higher power.’

“My face was shifting and twisting,” he continues. “I said my first prayer. I said, ‘If you take away my headache and the alcohol and let me see my daughter grow up I’ll do your will.'”

Later, when the doctor told him he had shouted at him in his semi-conscious state, Galbreath wondered why the doctor’s voice sounded so far away. The fact is Galbreath was near death.

“I wasn’t far away,” the doctor replied. “You were. The last thing that goes is your hearing.”

So ended a 35-year career as an alcoholic.

Galbreath sells beauty products and works as nurse technician at a hospice care center these days, but his true vocation is testimonial speaking. Without embarrassment he tells this and other stories to high school students and church youth groups, not to mention juvenile offenders in the Guilford County court alternatives program.

His downward spiral picked up momentum in 1985 when Galbreath, then a Guilford County jailer, was arrested for supplying inmates with heroin and cocaine and doing drugs with them.

“I could dance, I could drink, I could fight,” he says. “I thought that was something. I grew up abusive. You ask me, have I ever hit a woman? I have. Am I proud of it? No. Will I do it again? No.”

Galbreath believes his behavior was a response to the pain of his father’s absence from his childhood and witnessing his mother get beaten by her boyfriend as she worked to support her children. His theme since recovery has been acknowledging and letting go of his hurt, and making amends for the pain he dealt in turn to his family.

He makes no claims about the meaning of life for anybody but himself.

“For me to share my life, my good, my bad, my foolish ways, my hurt, my pain that I caused myself and others – that’s my purpose,” Galbreath says. “Just maybe it might inspire or motivate someone else to look at their behavior in life and change their ways.”

– JG

Edward Goins • Drum major, Cakalak Thunder

The street crowd is near catatonic, cocooned in armchairs and couches as the Dances With Wolves video plays on the VCR for what seems like the millionth time and a crew of earnest Guilford College students prepare a meal back in the kitchen at St. Mary’s House.

Edward Goins, resplendent in a silky shirt with blue and black swirls, stands out as an exuberant star in this otherwise downcast milieu. His aura, and more specifically his smile and demeanor, convey a playful and outgoing personality. In fact, he could get away with the honorific of “Mr. Personality.”

His tone is dreamy as he puzzles out the diamond-like essence of “the meaning of life.”

“Everybody has to live,” he begins. “Everybody lives one life. God put us on this earth for a reason: to live our life, and we all have to die someday. I don’t get why we have to die. I want to live forever.”

Goins is an inveterate performer. As a member of Cakalak Thunder, a Brazilian-style leftist drum corps, he has appeared at the 25th anniversary commemoration of the 1979 Klan-Nazi shootings in Greensboro, the 2004 “counter-inauguration” against President Bush in Washington, a protest against the Iraq War in Fayetteville and a Smithfield Foods shareholders meeting in Richmond, Va. In two days he’ll be in Carrboro for a rally to show solidarity with striking teachers in Oaxaca, Mexico.

“I think Cakalak [Thunder] is good for something,” he says. “It’s not all about protesting and war. It’s about serving people and getting people motivated and uplifted. And for the children – they see the instruments and they go crazy wondering what trick we’re gonna do.

“If I pass along I would like for people that’s left to remember what life is all about,” Goins adds. “It’s not about good things or bad things.”

Well then, what is it about?

To this, a cryptic answer: “Life’…. And remember that God loves you.”

– JG

Joseph Moore • Pastor, Adams Farm Community Church

“I think that the meaning of life has to transcend individual lives or else it is the meaning of just one life. Life in and of itself is something greater than the individual; it is still connected to individual lives but also linked to a greater whole. If life were just about you, then there really is no ‘meaning of life’; there is only a meaning of ‘lives.’ Since I am a Christian, God is love, and, since God created human beings in his image, we are the reflection of perfect love. Love is wishing good for another person. The meaning of life is about those around you.”

“I think that in America sometimes we are taught that the meaning of life is a completely personal thing and bound to possessions but I believe that it is much greater than me, my house, my car, even my kids. Some people treat life as a race to collect as many toys as possible but I have been a pastor long enough to see how empty that leaves people at the end of the race.”

“I don’t think that that realization necessarily comes with age either. I was an army chaplain and I met eighteen-year-olds whose life was not all about themselves and then I’ve met fifty-year-olds and their sports cars. Sometimes it is just the toys that change as people get older. I don’t think that age changes people; I think it’s perspective.”

“Life is about love, love is about someone else, and someone else is about loving God by loving something other than yourself.”

– SA

Badi Ali • President, Islamic Center of the Triad

“Life is a brilliant demonstration of God’s wisdom and knowledge and a vivid reflection of his art, power and might. All religions acknowledge this. He is the ultimate giver and creator. Nothing comes by chance; it all comes from him. God gave life to all of us. Not just you and me but the trees, the sky and the sun. Everything around us. A man is a trustee of life. You have to think of everything: the fish and the whales, the sea and the very air. It’s like a tree. If you take care of it, protect and maintain it, it will benefit you and others. But if you do not, then you haven’t earned the fruit. In Islam there is a saying that the good you do will return to you ’til the seventh generation.

“Trust and goodness comes from God. Life is both a gift and a journey. Man should honor God’s trust with responsibility, heart and skill. God gave us tools in the heart and the brain to do so’… we all have unique qualities and great abilities.

“Life is also a journey, starting from a point and ending at a destination. Life is knowing what is best to do, and then trying to fulfill it to the benefit of yourself, others and the environment. You have to have standards, a morality, and you have to leave this world with honor. We have to value life because God made it and if we value life, all life, then we will not live in misery.”

– SA

Mike Ancrum • Boxing coach, Greater Greensboro Boxing Academy

“Life is a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Me, personally, I think life is the essence of who we are, each separate individual. Life isn’t just what is operating within these bodies. When a person dies the body is still here but whatever substance makes that person ‘a life’ is gone. Life isn’t just about this outer shell. It has to be something greater than that. Something not of the body. I don’t know what that substance is. I can tell you the substances that make, say, a cake – flour, sugar, eggs. Put them all together and you get a cake. But what makes a person? That isn’t physical. What makes us distinct isn’t made of physical ingredients. My people are my life. My friends, my family and my culture. Life is about living in the moment, our own perspective. Life is in every creature; it’s in the air we breathe. We have many aspects to the life we live. One is an ‘inward’ life which everybody don’t get to see. It’s like a ‘thought-life.’ It’s a hidden life that you only show to the people closest to you. Intimate people. What you could call ‘soulmates.’ It’s very rare, but there are people there you know that you can open up to. You can enter this honest place were you feel safe and you can let them see this essence that is really you.

“Then there is the physical life: your appearance, your clothes, how you look and act. You present this to people everyday, to everybody and we feel more relaxed around people if they only see our ‘physical life’ rather than our ‘thought-life,’ which is who really are. Our ‘thought-life’ shows the working of our essence.

“And then there is a ‘spiritual’ aspect to human life which, I believe, is a gift that is given to everybody, and that comes from God. I believe that is what leaves when death comes. And that part is mysterious and it is not the soul but something else. Some force that we all share. I understand life to be like a circle, like the hands of a clock. We come into this life as an infant in the morning; we grow into strength in the afternoon and, at night, we go back to dependency – a second childhood. It’s a beginning and an end. Like the rising and the setting of the sun and just like the sun comes up slowly through the day but continually gives us light, I believe it is this that goes back to God when we die. Our life and everything we do in it is just a little part of our total existence. We only see the entry and the exit, not the whole thing.

“There are three questions I think could explain the meaning of life. One; Who am I? Two: What is my purpose here? Three: Where do I go when I die?

“If I could find the answers to these questions then I would be able to better prepare myself for life here. I have been searching for those answers my whole life.”

– SA

Judy McLaughlin • Music and theater teacher • Greensboro Day School

Judy McLaughlin has learned a lot about life from the students who have stood around her upright piano over the past 15 years.

“Patience,” she says, “lots of patience.”

In turn, she has tried to impart a few lessons of her own.

“A good work ethic is a very important thing,” she says. “I want kids to leave here appreciating music.”

“It’s important because of the way it makes people feel,” she says. “When you are personally performing something, it can have a really big effect on someone else’s life.”

Her own life was greatly affected a year and a half after the birth of her second son. That was when a doctor diagnosed the infant with autism. Now 17, he doesn’t speak but has plenty of what McLaughlin refers to as “expressive abilities.”

“It changed everything,” she says of the diagnosis. “I sweat the small stuff a lot less now.”

In the future, she would like to create a welcoming space for adults with autism. McLaughlin is working on her master’s degree in special education at UNCG.

“I picture it as a working farm,” she says. “With livestock they can work with and plants to put in the ground. I want it to be the kind of place they can get a lot of hands-on satisfaction from.”

– AK

Mistress Tamara • Professional dominant

“The meaning of life? How often do we talk about it? I don’t think the rest of us worry about it. We just get through one day at a time. But let’s operate on the premise that [it’s] what legacy you’re working towards leaving, the thing you leave behind. When I talk about my life I talk about my legacy. I have one child and the bottom line for me is that my daughter is proud of me. Not only is my legacy what I can do for other people, but what I can do for my family as a role model, as a representative for my family.

“What I do stems from a strong desire to help people who don’t feel like they’re part of the mainstream, anything I can do to make them feel accepted, acceptable, understood. Most are people who are either of great intelligence or great imagination, more so than what I would call the ‘vanilla world.’ Almost everybody we deal with is dealing with some psychological issue, working it through, [dealing with] great trauma, great loss. While it can be painful to hear people’s stories, I have to find that place inside of me where I can be accepting – tolerant. I hesitate to use the word ‘loving’ because I don’t want to be misinterpreted, but I have to be loving so people can be accepted. I provide a place for people like myself where they could feel respect and the acceptance they deserve. I’m happy with that legacy that I want to leave for people who feel like I did for so many years. I feel very fortunate that I can provide an outlet for people who don’t have any other way to express this greater intellect or greater imagination.”

“The term ‘dominatrix’ is passé.”

– BC

Matt Bennett • Bartender, M’Coul’s Public House

“What I think the meaning of life is is to enjoy it to the fullest, to appreciate family and friends and cherish them, you know? When I am older I want to look back and be satisfied with my memories and not regret having not done things or not paid attention to them. Not appreciated them at the time.”

“I like to make friends as well as drinks.”

– SA

Keith Holliday • Mayor of Greensboro

“I think of the ‘definition’ of life versus the ‘meaning’ of life. The definition is constantly changing due to a range from unconditional fulfillment to unbelievable emptiness and everything in between. To me that is life. It’s a moving target. Now, the standard to which you define fulfillment versus emptiness is based on relationships. Without a doubt, if you don’t have any relationships then you’ve got a pretty empty life. If you’ve got an abundance of good relationships, you probably have a good life.”

“You’ve got to be fed. What I mean is, if you are an extrovert then it makes sense to have an abundance of relationships that feed that. If you are an introvert, that’s fed by more quiet, introspective moments. What does it take to get this fulfillment, to feel like you’ve got a positive definition of life? You’ve got to first define who you are to determine what is best. What turns you on?”

“‘Don’t surround yourself with yourself.’ I stole that from a song. [In politics] you might win in the short run, but the public is pretty smart and they’ll discover that you’re really in it for yourself – that’s why you’re asking them to let you serve.”

– BC

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