Last week, one of the nation’s premier institutions of higher learning held its 40th year reunion. Members of the Class of 1974 left their corner offices, boardrooms, television studios, summer estates, and – yes – even their comfortably ordinary jobs and homes, to reconnect with old friends and classmates.

The climactic event of the reunion was a series of presentations rather misleadingly dubbed “The Eureka Moment!”. This was not the kind of Eureka moment experienced by Archimedes in the bathtub. Instead, members of this distinguished company vied with one another to present the most distressing, depressing, and often intimate episode of their lives. The format was eerily reminiscent of the old “Queen For a Day” television show, where contestants competed to see whose life was the most pathetic, with the winner receiving a slew of valuable prizes.Queen1

What led these successful people to participate in this strange event? Quite possibly, the same compulsions that made them successful in the first place.

Anyone planning to participate in or attend the event would not have expected a downer. Here is how the organizers described it:

The Eureka Moment! is an epiphany that changed your life, whether it’s meeting a special person, overcoming a challenge, or experiencing a life-changing event. It could have happened long ago or very recently; it could be funny, sad, or poignant; a big experience or a small one. The only rule is that the moment must spark a change in your outlook or approach to life. Sometimes the realization that you experienced the Eureka Moment! comes long after the moment occurred.

But if that ubiquitous exclamation mark led classmates to expect an uplifting occasion, they were soon disabused of that notion.

The first speaker set the tone, recounting the murder of his mentor, whose body was recently discovered in a dumpster. Then it got depressing. The next speaker described the deterioration and passing of her husband, who apparently drank himself to death. Another speaker told of being diagnosed with AIDS, and his subsequent abandonment by his significant other. A woman then rose and described how she committed herself to an institution for depression. Next, a doctor described the accidental death of a soilder in Saudi Arabia, followed by an entertainment magnate who told of the death of his freshman roommate in Europe.

A mother then related her concern about her daughter’s sex change operation: as a progressive, she didn’t want to appear socially backward, but she harbored reservations since her daughter’s decision was based on the advice of a guidance counselor with no relevant professional qualifications. Ultimately, she went along with the decision. Then, almost as an aside before sitting down, she mentioned that a son (not the daughter who was now a son, but her husband’s son by a previous marriage) committed suicide.

The final Eureka Moment! speaker seemed to proffer a spiritual climate change, as he described his and his daughter’s escape from a gun battle in Amsterdam. But hope for change proved illusory. As soon as he finished describing how his search for inner peace led him to forgive the gunman, he veered into a narration of his ordeal of being sexually molested for years as a child, while his parents did nothing. He announced that he had forgiven the molester, and his parents too, but somehow those acts of exoneration did not sound as sincere as the act of forgiving the gunman.

Each speaker was cheered robustly. The final speaker received the most thunderous applause, and a standing ovation to boot. Had he been a contestant on Queen for A Day, he would have broken the Clap-O-Meter.Queen2

Now, full disclosure: I unsuccessfully applied to be on the panel. My Eureka Moment! would have told of my experience starting up a boutique law firm specializing in intellectual property law. As I listened to my classmates, I really regretted my rejection. I think a lot of them would have appreciated hearing about more cost-effective ways to register a trademark, and I think they would have found my remarks on patent trolls quite humorous. If interspersed between narratives on suicide and molestation, my Eureka Moment! might have lightened the mood, at least a little.

And in fairness, I must mention that many of the speakers leavened their remarks with humor, and all spoke with courage.

But where were the positive stories? In a class full of world-beaters, where were the accounts of discovery, achievement, and triumph?

Where was the happiness?

I think the answer may lie in the character of the alumni.

The first few college reunions are supposed to be pressure-filled events, as alumni, in the early stages of their careers, compete to show how successful they are or hope to be. As alumni age, reunions tend to be more relaxed. Class members moderate both their ambitions and their stress. By middle age, many have made peace with the fact that they will never write the Great American Novel, or discover a cure for cancer, or sit on the Supreme Court. They are more likely to appreciate the success that they have achieved, which, in most cases at elite institutions, means earning a very comfortable living doing meaningful and challenging work. And if on top of all that, they also have wholesome family lives, they are likely to feel blessed indeed.

But age does not fundamentally change a person’s nature. The fires of competition that got them into elite schools in the first place are banked but not extinguished. As time’s winged chariot carries them into senescence, and opportunities to achieve in the worlds of commerce or the arts diminish, they turn their competitive impulses to new directions. Reunions become arenas in which competitors vie to show, not how much they achieved, but how much they’ve suffered.

That may explain why the panelists seemed to relish relating their Eureka Moments! Perhaps they have not out-written or out-earned that asshole in the neighboring suite. But by God they have out-suffered him.

By the 50th Year Reunion, the avenues of competition may change. By then, the human body, even for those with healthy habits, is breaking down. Assuming I’m invited back to that reunion (an assumption not to be made lightly after my classmates read this post), I would not be surprised to see Eureka Moment! panelists vying to lay claim to the largest gallstone, to the most arthritic limb, and to the heart that failed most abysmally. Heart failure may be the only failure acceptable to the competitive Class of 1974.