Anderson Cooper on a reporting trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Anderson Cooper on a reporting trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Credit: Per-Anders Pettersson / Getty Images for CNN

For months at a stretch, Anderson Cooper eats the same food. Lately he's been eating scrambled eggs three times a day. That's it. No salsa on top, no cheese; just scrambled egg whites. Before scrambled eggs it was baked potatoes, and before that it was oatmeal raisin bars, and veggie burgers. He doesn't drink hard liquor or coffee.

We in the man-tests-self-on-mountain business recognize this psychology. Food is merely fuel, something the body happens to need to keep going. But that's when we're on the mountain. There's something monastic about Cooper's streaky diet, a denial of life's momentary escapes, as if fine cuisine is somehow too frivolous to care about. But when I asked about this – Do you have trouble enjoying life? Is it okay to goof off? – Cooper insisted he thoroughly enjoys his scrambled eggs. Then he thought about my question for a minute further before gently denying my implication. "I have no guilt about having a nice meal and laughing... I mean, those are things which I think are important."

Maybe so. But those moments of gratuitous fun are not what make Anderson go. If your average American grinds out the weeks by looking forward to his next chance to relax, Anderson Cooper is the opposite. He has always endured the soft blanket of American life by gravitating to parts of the world where he can be surrounded by matters of life and death. He does not celebrate his birthday, and for the most part he and his mother Gloria Vanderbilt do not celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas, which feel like forced rituals. Despite hosting CNN's annual New Year's Eve broadcast, he doesn't really understand why New Year's is a reason to party rather than reflect. He usually cuts his vacations short.

In early December Cooper was weighing whether to move from his post as the host of CNN's nightly news program Anderson Cooper 360? to a traditional anchor position at another network. As he weighed this decision a woman named Angela kept playing on his mind. He'd met her on a reporting trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in October, at a secret compound outside Goma run by a charity. (To protect her privacy, Cooper did not reveal her last name.) Five months before, she'd been gang-raped by three soldiers in front of her children. They shot her in the right arm and burned one of her daughters across the stomach and chest. Angela's husband subsequently kicked her out of the house, fearing she might have contracted HIV, and she fled the village.

Cooper spent most of the day with Angela. She had long eyelashes and short braids and a gentle manner. "She was extraordinarily beautiful, such a contrast with what'd been done to her. She had every reason to kill herself or spend the rest of her life stewing in hatred," he recounted with some awe. "Instead, she spoke of forgiveness: forgiving her husband and forgiving the men who had raped her."

To Cooper, Angela embodied the extremes of the human experience he has witnessed in his more than 15 years of international reporting: the unimaginable brutality and the expansive will to overcome it. Four million people have died in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1998. "Four million people in eight years," Cooper told an audience last December. "And virtually no one knows about it."

"Doing 22 minutes of news from a desk in New York is just not for me," he said, explaining why he wasn't enticed by the anchor job. At CNN he could be out in the world encountering victims and survivors like Angela, bearing witness. And he needs that.