As you know, this blog is about finding teachers who guide and inspire us—whoever they are. Today’s teacher is Charles Cook, an Army veteran and former conductor for the New York City subway system; he passed away on August 19 at 79.
When the planes hit the World Trade Center towers on Sept 11, 2001, Charles was a 60-year-old retiree living in Harlem. He pulled on his work clothes, said goodbye to his wife, and headed downtown. Ground zero was nearly ten miles from his home and all public transportation was shut down. So he walked.
When he arrived, he was put to work, digging through the rubble by hand in search of people who might still be alive. With hundreds of other volunteers, he spent a total of three months at ground zero, sleeping on the floor of a nearby Brooks Brothers store.
In 2005, that experience inspired Charles to volunteer in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina left the city in ruins.
At ground zero, he was told that, “if you was down there in the first two to three weeks, it cuts your life expectancy off about five to 15 years,” he said in an interview in 2015. “But I don’t regret that,” he added. “You come in this world to go. It’s a matter of how you go. Do you make a difference, was your life meaningful?”
When Charles headed for New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, he told the filmmakers: “I wasn’t really doing anything with my time. But now I have a purpose, you know. When I’m helping someone, I have purpose.”
I like to think about Charles making that ten-mile walk down through Manhattan, with thousands fleeing in the other direction. What was he thinking? A couple of things strike me about that story.
First, it’s a good kick in the behind. I confess, it’s easy to look around at all the problems in the world and think, “Why doesn’t someone do something?” But Charles thought: “I’m someone, I can do something.” He just got up and did what he could.
We can’t all volunteer at a big disaster. But we can all do something.
Second, Charles got something from that experience that money can’t buy—something that nurtured him on the inside, a deeper sense of purpose and a clearer perspective. So I leave you with his words:
“You come in this world to go. It’s a matter of how you go. Do you make a difference, was your life meaningful?”