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In Remembrance of Purpose

At the southwest edge of Prospect Park, just across from Long Meadow Ballfields, beyond the bridle path and a few strides past the outer edge of West Drive, a pair of traffic cones mark a black circle in the grass. In the handful of weeks since April 14, people have left flowers, photos, candles, remembrances… and gradually, those few feet of charred earth have become a monument. 

But before the flowers, before the circle, before police marked the spot with two knee-high pylons of orange thermoplastic, David S. Buckel, 60—champion of gay rights and passionate environmental advocate—decided this was the spot. He sent a note to The New York Times at 5:55 AM on Saturday morning. By 6:30 AM, he was gone. A follow-up piece in The Times on April 15 noted that he’d texted a colleague to say he was home sick. Two weeks earlier, he’d made preparations for the same colleague to fill out important paperwork if, for whatever reason, he wasn’t around anymore. 

Generally, suicidal ideation is not persistent. Some—particularly those suffering from severe depression—are more likely to experience it, but for the most part, it waxes and wanes all the same. That fact is one of the more salient points in the gun debate: remove the means of instant, irreversible self-destruction and you’ll save thousands of lives every year. But on the face of it, such was not the case for Mr. Buckel. He planned weeks ahead, and when he felt his moment had come, he made himself known, covered his body in fuel, and set himself alight.

Of course, we can’t presume to know his state of mind in those final moments. Were his actions that Saturday morning really so considered and purposeful, or were they a pyrrhic, selfish act of hopelessness? And what of the fleeting seconds after the flame was irrevocably struck? Did he feel fear? Regret? Serenity? It’s impossible to know. All we have is what he said. He told us, with inescapable anguish, that the earth is sick. That his plea was grounded in fact is not debatable. Yet we the living have the option to discard his message as the tragic entreaties of a man who was impossibly ill, corrupted beyond recall by an extreme and climactic vision of the future. To what truth could such vain despair have passage that’s closed to the rest of us? We know, after all, that suicide almost never has only one victim. As a single life is extinguished, so too are the prayers of those he touched, those he loved. 

Yes, we can close our hearts to people like Mr. Buckel. We can shut our minds to Thích Quảng Đức, the Mahayana Buddhist monk who burned himself to death in central Saigon, June 1963, protesting the Diệm regime’s oppression of the Buddhist minority. But in their last, despondent acts, these men, with hundreds before and since, screamed what they held most dear—their truths worth dying for. So perhaps even if, in rational self-defense, we decry their means, we should still try to hear what they thought so important to say. 

What’s more, if we’re being honest, we have to reckon with the undeniable, unapologetic vacuity of business school. No matter how useful the concepts you’ll absorb here, their teleological bent is decidedly terrestrial. It’s unlikely that anything you learn in these halls will make you a better, happier person. Wealthier, yes, but wealth is imperfectly correlated with happiness, and a recent study in the journal Nature suggested that earning more than about $105,000 annually doesn’t make you any more content. Many of us gave up salaries as big so that we could come here in search of bigger ones. But is that our purpose? Is providing for our families—so to speak—worth dying for? 

In a letter to his wife, Abigail, John Adams wrote, “I must study politics and war that my sons have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy… commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.” I wonder, then—is the telos of wealth and comfort that they give our children the faculty to do what we could not? For most of the planet, that’s probably true. But for we few at Stern, the world lay at our feet before we arrived. Most of us were ‘the lucky ones’ before we got here. Adams’ poetry and music could have been ours if we wanted them, and we wouldn’t think any less of our children if they retread the paths that we do. 

So if not to make our lives better—if not to transcend something, anything—why do we do what we do? 

Do you know?

There are a million answers; there are no answers. 

Maybe to feel pleasure. Maybe to feel valuable. Maybe to feel love.

From my poor and fettered periscope on the universe, each is a version of just one thing: to drink the hemlock of purpose. To know as you lie peaceful and exhausted—or consumed by fire—that the myth you bought with vanishing hours was worth its price in freedom. 

In closing, as we celebrate the end of another year at Stern, internships won and job offers accepted, I hope that wherever you are, you’ll join me in raising a glass in remembrance of purpose—to the man who, for good or ill, was David S. Buckel.

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