We weren’t sure about choosing professions, because people we knew in familiar professions – doctors or attorneys – clearly had both privileges and problems. But we were, all three, quite sure we wanted independence, to choose our home, work, friends and how we wanted to live. We also wanted to find meaning in what we did, so we could feel good we were doing something of service to others.
We kept in touch after college. There were times when we made few contacts or didn’t answer letters, but soon we picked up the thread again. As we went to work in different cities, we rarely met any longer, and when we did it was only in pairs, but we dreamed of getting the trio together again.
Khan came for a conference to my town and Neel graciously took two days of vacation to visit us. We agreed to meet in the college cafeteria for old time’s sake and sip tea together as in old days. For weeks we corresponded and planned the meeting, raising our own expectations in the process.
I felt a bit nervous and arrived early, and found Neel already there. I recognized him all right, but was a bit shocked to find him looking so tired and frayed. Khan was a bigger surprise: he was heavier, seemed older than his age, and would have been unidentifiable if he hadn’t come toward us with a familiar smile.
Even after so many years we retained a vibrant link, and we spoke happily about our days together. Then I asked if we were living the life we had dreamed about. Neel was a successful surgeon, but he seemed to find little joy in his success. He said his work had become just a “business,” and his reputation served to attract the wealthiest to his door, not the neediest.
Khan was a celebrity, a politician admired for ingenuity and affability, a true success. He was known for his integrity and outspokenness. He saw it differently: at every step he had had to compromise, sacrifice principles he valued to achieve results he thought important. He said he began by thinking that he was helping people, but now he knew better.
I didn’t have their kind of success. I had simply worked in an office and over the years gained the modest reputation of a helpful, friendly person. I liked that people came to me for assistance. Now, listening to my friends, I had a precious moment of self-introspection. I wondered how many little principles I had quietly abandoned, how many causes, once cherished, I had gently let fall by the wayside.