A Conversation with University of Virginia Professor and Co-Recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, Jerry White
By: Tom Bussen
Visiting Israel in 1984, Jerry White was a 20-year-old college student learning about the geopolitics and Abrahamic religions of the Middle East. One holiday week in April, Jerry went camping with two friends. In his book, Getting Up When Life Knocks You Down, Jerry writes of a “sunny day…hiking the beautiful hills north of the Sea of Galilee.” Walking ahead of his close buddies, Jerry recalls when “the quiet morning is punctured by a loud thud. The earth opens, and spits up at me, and I’m swallowed by dirt and rocks. The blast of soil in my face blinds me. I fall on my hands and knees.”
Jerry had stepped on a landmine, a remnant of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. His lower right leg was gone, his life nearly lost, but after an arduous recovery in an Israeli hospital, he would once again walk with the help of a prosthetic leg.
Fast forward to 1996. Jerry is traveling through Cambodia and meets a young girl with no leg. While Jerry has a $17,000 prosthetic leg, the child leans on a homemade crutch. It is with a child’s innocence that she does not comment on the differences between them, but instead sees their shared histories. She looks into Jerry’s eyes and says in her local Khmer tongue, “You are one of us.”
“I realized she was right,” Jerry writes. “I asked myself what I could do to help support that little girl and the hundreds of thousands like her—people who, through no fault of their own, had slammed into some kind of horrible date with destiny.”
This led Jerry to co-found Landmine Survivors Network (later, Survivor Corps). “Corralling the voices of mine victims around the world,” Jerry wrote, “We set out to ban the use of landmines and help survivors get legs and find work.” And corral he did. Jerry gained the support of luminaries including Princess Diana, Senator John McCain, Jordan’s King Hussein and Queen Noor, and the Dalai Lama, and helped secure the landmark 1997 Mine Ban Treaty – which now boasts 164 state signatories.
This breakthrough led to the coalition’s receiving the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. In addition to this work, Jerry served as US Deputy Secretary of State to launch the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, testified before Congress and the United Nations, and won countless humanitarian and human rights awards.
Jerry has, in short, made a mark in service to humanity like few others – and he was gracious enough to sit down with me to explain some of his motivations.
The Hedonic Treadmill of Contemporary America: Money and Power and Fame
Or fame or life, Which do you hold more dear? Or life or wealth, To which would you adhere? Keep life and lose those other things; Keep them and lose your life.
-Laozi, China, 6th Century BC
Looking back on his 1984 “date with destiny” in the hills of Israel, it’s the tough love Jerry seems to recall most clearly. This was Israel, Jerry explained, and no matter how significant his own pain or suffering, he was told time and again that only he – not the doctors or nurses – could improve his circumstances. He remembers in particular a visit from another landmine victim, a former Israeli soldier, who asked whether Jerry could still have children. Yes, said Jerry, to which the older grizzled amputee declared, “What you have is a nose cold – you’ll get over it.”
Jerry appreciated this tough love, and brought the same attitude to his interview with me. He offered a no-holds barred, no-nonsense perspective on the ills of the modern world. Yet he also held out massive hope, articulating a pathway for those truly devoted to the public good, rather than simply one’s own good. It was his own personal brand of tough wisdom.
When I asked Jerry to talk with me about professional ambition, he began by describing the three ego traps of contemporary America: money, power, fame. “Each one has its cultic allure, but they seem to be three age-old things,” Jerry explained.
First comes the money trap – “Wall Street is one version of power. Greed is one of the dominant and iconic flavors of NYC,” White explained.
Second, there’s the power trap. “That’s the D.C. version. So many people are motivated by proximity to power. Who’s in, who’s out. There’s a social power, political power obsession regarding who’s at the top. Who do you know? Were you in the room where it happened? Even Capitol Hill interns carrying Congressman’s donuts and coffee believe they are somehow powerful. There’s a lot of self-importance. That’s another type of ego inflation.”
“And then there’s the LA cliché, which is the pursuit of fame. I need my media hits, I need my online likes, I need my fans, I need my Oscars, and I need to be near celebrity.”
White characterized these three ego traps as addictions. Everyone just wants another hit of that money, power, or fame. “They get addicted to their personal ambition. It’s like drugs and addiction, you’re addicted to an illusion, you’re addicted to an ephemeral feeling.”
White is describing what social scientists refer to as the hedonic treadmill, which holds that we quickly adapt to new pleasures in life – including money, power and fame. After getting that initial “hit”, as White describes it, we soon revert to our baseline levels of happiness. Like with a drug, to get a new high, we must run ever faster on that hedonic treadmill – earning more money, claiming more power, seeking more fame. The risk, as author Stephen Covey explains, is that “a person in this state becomes almost entirely narcissistic, interpreting all of life in terms of the pleasure it provides to the self here and now.”
Eventually, White explained, “You have the fruit of your ambition staring up to you in the face. You’re like, ‘why did I do that?’ Nonetheless, too many never get off this hedonic treadmill. “There are those that get addicted to their ambition. They’re unhappy, but they’re on the Merry-Go-Round and can’t get off.”
Jerry continued, “I’ve run around the world with royals and celebrities and billionaires, but I don’t want to be any of them. I don’t want their lifestyle. I’m never envious. Perhaps that’s my freedom or advantage in this life. I’m not trying to get on their yachts or their planes. I don’t really give a shit.”
From One Treadmill to Another: The Ego Trap of Humanitarian Giving
Happy is he who has overcome his ego.
-Gautama Buddha, India, 5th to 4th century BC
Here’s the thing. Jerry is not a “holier than thou” kind of guy. He believes that most all of us are on this treadmill together, himself included. “I am no Mother Teresa,” White said. “I used to be addicted to work and success,” White admits. “I found great meaning helping people, and I was good at it. And because I was good at it, it just so happened that no one called me out on my workaholism. I flexed my muscles in the gym of social impact. We all tend to do things that we’re good at – it can be a trap, a loop of virtue recognition.”
“For me as a social entrepreneur, doing good in the world, no one felt they could criticize. No one could do the equivalent of a family intervention on me for being so ‘noble’ for sharing in the Nobel Peace Prize. I’m running around the world, like, helping millions of people and saving lives.” Describing the jet-setting lifestyle of himself and many humanitarian workers, Jerry continues: “You’re on a lot of planes and sleeping in too many hotels. But it looks as if I’m constantly surrounded by people missing arms and limbs from every country and conflict. It appears as if I’m always in the trenches, risking my life. If someone actually challenged me, to say, ‘Now you need to go wipe someone’s ass and take care of them in a wheelchair, to really be of service,’ I’d be like ‘No, I can’t do that. I can’t handle gross.’ Obviously, I don’t live in rural Angola or Mozambique or Cambodia or El Salvador. The stranger or ‘expat’ can always go home. That’s my privilege. Most humanitarian workers can go home.”
White continued, “At the end of the day, I’m really not interested in mentoring someone just for them to feel better about themselves. Unless you are serious about service to humanity – but some don’t appreciate me challenging their concept of generosity, coming in and raining on their parade of giving.”
Jerry’s point is that the world of social work, aid and development are all filled with people – often times young people – that have chosen this path to set their ladder and begin their climb. No less a figure than Dorothy Day, said this about her early efforts in social work: “I do not know how sincere I was in my love of the poor and my desire to serve them. I wanted to go on picket lines, to go to jail, to write, to influence others, and so make my mark on the world (emphasis added). How much ambition, and how much self-seeking there was in all of this.”
While White’s warning rang true, it nonetheless dawned on me that this world-renowned, beyond reproach giver had now lobbed criticism at traditionally ambitious professionals, at diplomats and expatriates, humanitarian workers and even $3 a day Peace Corps volunteers. And, of course, at himself. Somewhat mystified, I told Jerry frankly, “you sound cynical.”
Jerry adamantly rejected the characterization: Laughing, he explained, “Sorry for my venting. Truth be told, I’m not pessimistic and I’m not cynical. At all. I may sound a bit harsh in my assessments. But that’s just me being mean about the truth. My eternal deepest hope is that each of us, whether hedge funders or humanitarians, is able to look in the mirror and have an “aha” wake-up moment. We have in us this capacity to become healing transformers for humanity. No, I have never ever lost hope.”
Getting Off the Treadmill: Walking with Purpose
“A person starts to live when he can live outside himself”
– Albert Einstein
Jerry believes a global wake-up call is in order. The hedonic treadmill represents a “collective neurosis.” “Most of us are walking around numb like zombies. And there are a few vampires out there in this horror schtick, too. They will suck your blood, if you succumb. We have to wake up so that power predators in the USA or Russia and elsewhere don’t feed on innocent people who are completely unaware.”
“As many zombies as we can wake up to ‘a-ha moments’, where they start to discover their inner capabilities and superpowers – which are powerful – will reverberate out to the world. I think we start to heal by waking up and then working daily and doggedly towards our higher dreams.”
Those who do awaken are “exhilarated about the prospects of really knowing themselves and then being in service, which is a different energy. If you shift from personal ambition for yourself and your tribe and your family, or money or bank account, to ambition for the other, that requires your higher self in service to planet and people, which is a different service.”
Jerry believes these “a-ha moments” serve as the impetus to jump off the hedonic treadmill and to begin walking with purpose. “These conversions – the ‘a-ha moments’ – the epiphany can happen today in a minute, if and when you want to see yourself as you are. Even an opioid addict yesterday can be clean by tomorrow.”
“There are many role models in every community who have done it, with whom you can surround yourself. Very often, it takes a crisis like bankruptcy or a cancer scare. You are suddenly brought low and your ‘a-ha moment’ is expedited by crisis.” In other cases, “It’s more like a chronic illness inflicting ongoing pain. Or maybe you are the successful lawyer on the road to making partnership, with the golden handcuffs of security and high pay. You’ve climbed the ladder but reduced your identity. It’s living with these compromises that trap us, where we drink the Kool-Aid of social approval, every step of the way.”
After waking the zombie and getting off the hedonic treadmill, Jerry stresses the beauty of being “vocationally called to the work of meaning. You can’t just do it as a hobby. This is a very deep place and a sacred job – serving others. To hold everyone in dignity and equality. You are no better and no worse. We’re all dirt together. I don’t romanticize The Human Condition, but I do romanticize and love our potential for transformation.”
Baby Steps, Mental Leaps
In the final minutes of the interview, I asked Jerry to talk about proactive steps we all can take to get off the hedonic treadmill and be of service to others. Jerry began, “People look at me negotiating treaties, traveling the world, and say, ‘I could never do that. I’m an introvert and need to pay the rent.’ That’s you letting yourself off the hook. Each of us has to start small or somewhere. You don’t have to become a monk or join a convent; you don’t have to hop on a plane to visit a refugee camp. Just start giving, you bastard! All those maxims we have heard since youth matter: “Bloom where you’re planted!” Be generous and pay it forward. Donate to Save the Children, anywhere on the frontlines. “Giving anywhere will have ripple effects everywhere.”
“I’m not really worried about your ‘doing’ abilities,” Jerry concluded. “Anyone can and should bring their specific skills to the table of life. If you’re good with numbers on the business-ambition side, then you’ll be good on the other side. But after an a-ha moment, you can no longer think the same way. Once you have a conversion moment to the deepness, the humility of our interdependence, the humility of our dignity and equality, and the humility of being a subset of nature, belonging to Mother Earth – yes, from that space, you can work miracles.”
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 Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American psychologist, 60(5), 410.
 Covey, S. R., & Covey, S. (2020). The 7 habits of highly effective people. Simon & Schuster.