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.

Most accounts of Cooper's life focus on three facets of his 39 years: his emotional reporting on Hurricane Katrina, his famous mother, and his brother's sudden, unexplained suicide. In the summer of 1988 Cooper's older brother Carter took his own life by dangling from the terrace of the family's 14th-story penthouse, then letting go – with his mother right there, begging him not to do it. His last words were, "Will I ever feel again?"

In retelling Anderson's story, his brother's suicide is often cited as the seminal event that triggered him to begin traveling the world, reporting on tragedy. In his memoir he writes of "wanting to go where the pain outside matched the pain I was feeling inside." While this connection has certainly played large in Cooper's psyche, it's not the complete picture. He actually began traveling, and seeking his own identity through tests of character, during high school. At that time in his life his brother was at Princeton. His father, Wyatt Cooper, had died undergoing open heart surgery when Anderson was 10. His mother was nearing the peak of her success with designer apparel and was seeing the same astrologist as Nancy Reagan. Young Anderson sought his own alternate universe too.

He found it the summer before his junior year, in 1983, when he spent time in the Rockies with NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School. Having grown up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan as the son of a fashion maven, Cooper had never carried a backpack, let alone done any proper mountaineering. Within minutes of stepping off the plane in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the guides voted him least likely to survive the course. After a month in the Wind River Range, Cooper had found the antidote to the chaotic silliness of Manhattan high society and the infamous romances of his mother. This contrast – between his mother's life and the one he wanted for himself – is a recurring theme in his life.

Cooper had hoped to spend his senior year of high school at Scotland's notoriously rugged Gordonstoun School, which was started by Dr. Kurt Hahn, the same man who founded Outward Bound. When that didn't work out, he completed his high school credits in one semester. Most 17-year-olds would have seen the forthcoming months as a chance to drink beer by the gallon while waiting to hear if they'd been accepted to college (Cooper later was, to Yale). Instead Cooper fixated on an ad in the back of an adventure magazine for a company called Encounter Overland that promised a trip through Africa in a 13-ton British Army truck. Cooper bought a seat on the truck and flew to Johannesburg.

In the back of the truck he was surrounded by dropouts from Australia, guys in their 20s and 30s who didn't know what to do with their lives. For months the group made camp and cooked their own food. Wherever they camped, locals would come out and sit, watching. Cooper would play with the kids, kick a soccer ball around with the teens, and do his wash with the villagers. "Africa was a place to forget and be forgotten in," he later wrote.

One night, as Cooper slept under the truck, the camp was raided and everything was stolen, including Cooper's clothes, camera, and film. He wasn't upset about the clothes, but the loss of the film troubled him. Without pictures from his trip, he feared he'd forget some of what he learned en route. He decided to see the theft as a test, a chance to prove that he wasn't caught up with owning the right things.

Months later, the trip ended in the Central African Republic. Cooper flew home to New York, where he found his mother at their house in Southampton. Friends were over; small talk was being had on the porch. Welcome back to the land of things.Carter Cooper committed suicide the summer before Anderson's senior year at Yale. It was a hard year, and after Anderson graduated he took some time off, traveling to Southeast Asia and renovating an old house on Long Island. Then he got a job as a fact-checker with Channel One, a show seen by more than 7 million high school kids during homeroom. During that year Cooper met a political activist in Washington involved in the Burmese student movement. Sensing a story about pro-democracy student groups that had fled Rangoon, the capital, after Burma's ruling junta crushed their demonstrations, he quit his job, borrowed a Hi-8 camera, and had a friend mock up a fake press pass on a Mac.

Cooper flew to Thailand, and in the border town of Mae Sot met with a contact provided by his friend from Washington. The contact smuggled Cooper into a rebel camp, where the pro-democracy students had apparently linked up with an armed uniformed militia engaging the junta in violent clashes. From their camp Cooper could hear constant mortar fire. At a field hospital he watched as a doctor amputated a teenager's leg with a handsaw. When he got back to Bangkok he sent his video to Channel One, and they bought it immediately. He called his mom to tell her he'd found his bliss.

Cooper is quick to point out that this bliss didn't come from his being an adrenaline cowboy. Adventure sports, for instance, are not for him. "Jumping out of a plane I have no interest in. It seems like an unnecessary risk for me. I wouldn't rock climb, really. I hate heights." In his memoir he describes the first time a sniper took shots at him, in Sarajevo, and admitted that the moment brought a hint of a smile to his face. On September 11, 2006, while broadcasting from a base in Afghanistan, Cooper didn't duck while Bravo Company troops ran from six incoming rockets. He considers the danger to himself just part of the job; it's not risk he's after, it's gravitas.

That Cooper cares about his subjects when he's on camera has been well-chronicled. He choked up during the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, and again when 11 miners were found dead at the Sago Mines in West Virginia. To some, Cooper brings to mind William Hurt in Broadcast News, crying for the camera on cue. That kind of criticism is easy to lob from the safe haven of a news desk. To be fair, those few incidents are the only moments of rising emotion Cooper has shown in more than 15 years of covering wars and disasters. He was labeled the "emo anchor" by the New York Observer, and the term has been batted around since in media circles. However, it misses the essential dynamic with which he struggles. It's not that Cooper cares too much. If anything, his challenge is that he cares little about the humdrum pitter-patter of daily American life. He speaks to a mass audience for two hours each weeknight, but only the weightiest domestic issues raise his pulse. It's hard for him to find domestic stories that match international ones on the grand scale of human suffering.

In the 24 hours before we met up, Cooper had been in Jordan, Lebanon, and London. Earlier that week he'd been in Turkey and Brazil. His secret superpower of sorts is his ability to get 40 winks anywhere, anytime. He can sleep on planes or in noisy hotels. In Somalia he slept on a hotel roof when no rooms were available, and while staking out Pope John Paul II's funeral he napped on the sidewalk with his jacket over his head, amidst tens of thousands gathered in St. Peter's Square. In each case he could have just let a local correspondent file a story from the locale du jour. But Cooper felt a need to be there in person, on the scene. Why?

I expected him to tell me that being on the scene makes a difference, that his personal, earnest style of reporting gets the world to care, to intervene. But Anderson Cooper claims that is not how he feels. This is probably the most surprising statement he made to me: "I wouldn't make any claim to actually having any kind of impact at all on anything. I mean, I've got a little TV show, but you know... It's very hard."

He didn't proclaim this just once, in a self-deprecating way, but many times. He's quite pessimistic about the world's affairs. He believes New Orleans has been all but forgotten. Sixty percent of greater New Orleans, he points out, remains a ghost town. In Afghanistan the conflict is growing much worse; Pakistan pulled out of border checkpoints, allowing Islamic militants to cross over and launch attacks on American and NATO troops. His coverage of the famine in Niger, he notes, didn't lead to international relief. Other American media has not shared his interest in the DRC.

Believing your work is ultimately meaningless is a classic warning sign for imminent burnout. Cooper's fans often ask him how he keeps going. Doesn't he get overwhelmed?

He admitted that he'd burned out once. It was in 1994. Cooper found himself in Rwanda, following the path of Tutsi rebels who were advancing on Kigali. It was on this assignment that he realized, after so much war reporting, he had lost his capacity to feel any shock or horror. "I would see a dozen bodies and think, you know, It's a dozen, it's not so bad." On the side of the road he came across five bodies that had been in the sun for several days. The skin of a woman's hand was peeling off like a glove. Revealing a macabre fascination, Cooper whipped out his disposable camera and took a close-up photograph for his personal album. As he did, someone took a photo of him. Later that person showed Cooper the photo, saying, "You need to take a look at what you were doing."

"And that's when I realized I've got to stop," Cooper recalled. "I've got to report on some state fairs, or a beauty pageant or something, to just, like, remind myself of some perspective." He'd stopped caring who these bodies had been, what they had lost. He left his job and returned to New York to regroup. He was 27.

So what's different today that keeps him from burning out? He's not sure. I offered the possibility that his brother's death is less haunting now, as it's been almost 19 years and Cooper's found a way to write about it. He agreed that could be a factor.

Another factor is that in 1994 Cooper was primarily working alone. Today he has a small team consisting of a cameraman and a producer; sharing the experiences helps soften their blow. Also, by 1994 he had been in the field for three solid years. In 2007 he is home in New York City more than enough. The two sides of his life work like yin and yang. A week in the field and he looks forward to seeing his apartment. After a couple of days in New York being chased by the gossip pages, he longs to get back in the field.

Even though Cooper, in contrast to his mother, has spent his career trying to stay out of the gossip columns, the two are extremely close, even best friends. She lived with him in the mid-'90s, after she sold off both of her houses to pay the IRS $2.5 million in back taxes. But in vowing to keep his private life private, Cooper knows he may be making things worse for himself; by holding back personal details, those details become the source of speculation. For example, gawker.com, a New York media blog, occasionally suggests that Cooper is gay. Because he refuses to discuss his sexual orientation, that speculation whets the appetite of gossip hounds. When he relaxes on Long Island he doesn't leave his house for days. To lie on a beach and read without being hounded, he jets south to Itacaré, in Brazil.

And none of this – not the death of his brother and father, or the demands of his career, or the tragedies he's reported on – have diminished his desire for family. "I'd like to have kids at some point," he said. "I think I'll have a family someday."

When that time comes, he's likely to look more to his father's family than his mother's as a template. Cooper's a Vanderbilt by blood, but he has never been to a Vanderbilt family reunion. Once he visited the Breakers, one of the family's robber baron mansions in Newport, Rhode Island. He was about 11. A relative lived on the top floor; Cooper stayed with her. He'd look down the banister and see tours swarming the bottom floors. Dinner always started with a boiled egg buried in aspic. He found the whole scene absurd.

By contrast, his father's family has a reunion in Mississippi every June. Cooper attends often, including this past year. His father was born in the small town of Quitmar, Mississippi. Though he had made it to New York as a screenwriter when he met Gloria Vanderbilt, Wyatt Cooper was emotionally close to his kin. Anderson remembers his father talking to his siblings for hours on the phone. Wyatt wrote a memoir, and when Anderson was eight his father toured the South to promote the book, with his sons tagging along. Anderson rereads it every year.

In his memoir Cooper proclaims his fascination with how people survive and rebuild their lives. But getting to know him, I now believe that for all his fascination, he couldn't tell you how it's done. My first clue was that in his memoir he completely held back from making any specific conclusions about what distinguishes those who rebuild from those who can't.

"Not to sound too Dr. Phil all of a sudden," he said, "but I think the key to survival is to embrace one's past and to not run away from it. And to come to some sort of relationship with it or understanding of it."For much of his life, he admits, he dealt with the pain of his father's and brother's deaths by moving around. He only began to feel whole again when he let himself talk about it, and write about it, which he has done throughout his 30s. He travels as much or more now, but it's not to escape himself.

Yet for being such a student of recovery, surely he has more to conclude than that you have to face your sorrow. Experts have opinions on the specific elements of recovery, such as the role of religious faith, or the value of not taking people away from their communities, or the importance of forgiveness versus vengeance. Cooper doesn't have opinions on these. And he struggles when he tries to apply what he's learned from others to his own healing process. For instance, after his month of Katrina coverage, his boss told him to take a vacation. Cooper went to Oaxaca for its annual Day of the Dead celebration, a joyful ritual predicated on the belief that the dead come back to visit their relatives on earth. Cooper hoped he might soak up some of the healing atmosphere and experience a catharsis. But that proved difficult for him.

"Oaxaca felt very alien to me," he said. "The whole notion of sitting around a grave and laughing and singing and all that – I could not do that in a million years. I was glad I saw it, and I found it incredibly moving and I'm glad these people were able to do it and it meant something to them. But that's something I don't think I would ever..."

Cooper, it occurred to me, believes that little separates those who thrive from those who do not. For him survivors are the lucky ones, and victims the unlucky. To pretend otherwise is merely a coping tactic. This is how he ultimately dealt with his brother's suicide; he believed it happened to Carter because it could happen to anybody.

"Our skin is very thin," he says. "It doesn't take much for us to jump off a ledge or to kill one another. It can happen very, very quickly."

What he gets from people like Angela in the DRC, then, is not so much a healing strategy but a testament to the capacity for resilience in human character. The Angelas of the world remind Cooper not to be fragile, and not to lose the capacity to feel, even when there is no good reason to be optimistic.