This is my last metro-state column for the Star Tribune. It's the end of a journey I'll remember always.

I've met people in whom the human spirit burns bright. One was a 23-year-old Korean pianist who, through relentless practice, dazzles audiences around the world. Her dancing hands play intricate Chopin impromptus, though each hand has only two fingers.

Another was a Circle Pines woman who wasn't content to send flowers and a get-well card when the young son of a co-worker fell dangerously ill. Instead, she chose to give him life itself -- one of her own kidneys.

I've met Salvation Army workers whose love for others leads them out on subzero nights, searching for seemingly hopeless lives to resurrect. I've come to know courageous men and women in our armed services who sacrificed their own convenience to defend our nation and its ideals -- with their lives, if necessary.

I've come face to face with tragedy. In the process, though, I've learned of stories beyond the sadness -- stories of profound inspiration.

I wrote about one young man who lost his life in a car accident four days after his 26th birthday. His few years on Earth had been filled with such remarkable generosity of spirit that his funeral in Marshall, Minn., was moved to a university gym to accommodate all who wanted to attend.

Another man -- an artist -- was taken in his prime, losing a 20-year battle with a painful chronic disease. He learned to overcome suffering by embracing beauty wherever he found it.

I recall seeing him once, his car pulled off by the side of the highway. He was racing about, snapping photos of a brilliant sunset. Passing drivers gawked, but he was oblivious -- riveted on capturing this fleeting but magnificent burst of color.

I've tried to tell the stories of people such as these. In other columns, I've sought to articulate truths that lie at the foundations of our lives. These "first principles" do not always align well with the cultural and political fashions of our time. But it's precisely in such times that a vigorous defense of them is required.

I won't try to summarize these principles here. Instead, I'll mention a few near the top of the list.

One question I've explored is the source of human happiness, which often seems just beyond our grasp. Again and again, I've seen that those who find happiness do so by rejecting self-absorption and helping others to carry their burdens.

As contemporary Americans, we often look to others -- including government -- to make us happy, and blame our unhappiness on the unjust actions of others.

But Samuel Johnson, the great English man of letters, knew that life is more complicated:

How small, of all that human hearts endure

That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.

Still to ourselves in every place consigned,

Our own felicity we make or find.

A second truth: The family is the foundation of all other human institutions and endeavors. It has rightly been called "the seedbed of virtue." No government program, no matter how extravagantly funded, can replace it. No school, however good its curriculum or faculty, can teach the life lessons that a loving father and mother can convey.

A strong family is one of the surest ports in any storm. When the institution of the family disintegrates, men and women suffer, and children pay the heaviest price of all.

In the end, however, we will always struggle with self-absorption, since that is the human condition. Our families will always fall short of the ideal, and will sometimes crumble. Yet we still have reason to hope that a good God will lift our broken hearts and offer us peace that "passes all understanding."