Time to Have an Impact

Benjamin Franklin famously remarked that only two things are inevitable: death and taxes. In this era of superior diagnostics, timely treatment, miracle drugs, and breathtaking medical innovation, he might have been tempted to add a third item to the list -- serious long-term illness.

Almost every family experiences one: the sort of reverie-piercing, life-rending health event or diagnosis that smacks you upside the head without warning, challenging your finances, belief system, priorities, and plans -- frequently when you're on the phone with your health insurer.

The first question many of us ask is, "Why me/us?" One of my favorite responses was provided by former major league baseball player Dan Quisenberry, a celebrated relief pitcher from the 1980s. Diagnosed with cancer after his playing career was over, Quisenberry said, "I never asked, 'Why me? Why NOT me?'"

In my experience, most families move quickly past the "why" question to ask more practical ones related to the best course of treatment and the logistics of living. But with treatment and logistical considerations in hand, the question after these shot-across-the-bow health crises frequently becomes how do you want to spend your time -- and on what? I'd like to share my answer.

A Better Question

For three-plus years in high school and college, my daughter dated a wonderful boy, James. James was diagnosed with cancer as an 11 -year-old, it recurred at age 16, and by 20 he had passed way.

Fathers of daughters are conditioned, honor-bound, and genetically wired to intimidate and torture their daughters' boyfriends. I failed miserably. It was because James was incredibly engaging, articulate, discerning, and ingratiating. Rebuff him? Within a week, he knew my PIN.

One day, towards the end of James' life, pissed, weary and looking for answers, I accosted his oncologist, Lenny Wexler (a brilliant physician and a great friend) in the halls of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Why, I demanded to know -- half asking, half accusing -- was James losing his fight with cancer? Lenny replied: "Why did this happen to James -- or to any other kid on this floor? I don't know. The answer to that question is unknowable. Not for us to comprehend. I hope maybe one day to know, but it won't be in this realm. Let me give you a better question to ask. Every morning I wake up and ask, 'Whose life can I make better today?' That's a question with an answer. You might want to start asking it."

Little Changes = Big Impact

Every year or so our agency, Tiller, conducts polling on Americans' attitudes toward good works. It turns out we really do care. Consider that in our 2009 survey, 97% of Americans said it's important to contribute to the greater good and 95% said it's critical for children to learn the importance of giving back.

But consider this as well: most respondents (57%) at least somewhat agreed with the statement, "I feel stretched so thin, I have nothing left to give."

Life today is incredibly complicated. We have little time for ourselves and even less for others. We're low on energy and long on responsibilities. We are distracted and distended and scurrying to make ends meet. Tough to focus on others when just making it though the day is challenging enough. But Lenny Wexler's question really cuts to the chase: No matter what your circumstances, no matter where you are in life, no matter the skills or dollars you do or do not possess, no matter how personally besieged or challenged, every day represents an opportunity to help someone else. Or as Nelson Mandela once said, "We must use time wisely...the time is always ripe to do right."

And the ability to help others, to have an impact, comes in all shapes and sizes -- and not always when you are expecting it. You may not have the drive to start a nonprofit or the patience to mentor a young person, but everyone has the time and capacity to make a donation, to help a neighbor, or to be there for a loved one. The cumulative effects of millions of individual actions can be transformational.

A Bonnie Good Fight

Ironically, sometimes our most daunting personal challenges also present our largest opportunities to make a difference.

Consider my friend Bonnie Addario. Six years ago Bonnie was diagnosed with Stage III lung cancer. Lung cancer is a virulent disease. It is much more common, lethal and, from a research perspective, under-funded than most of us know. To put lung cancer in perspective, more Americans will die of lung cancer in 2010 than colon, breast, pancreatic, and prostate cancers combined. And perhaps most surprising, lung cancer in women who have never smoked is one of the fastest growing of all cancers.

Undeterred by the general public's seeming lack of interest in the disease and undaunted by her own uphill battle, Bonnie created the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation, raising millions of dollars in the search for a cure for this dread disease -- and touching hundreds of families along the way. As Bonnie puts it, her greatest gratification comes from "hearing the voice of someone newly diagnosed and knowing that I made them feel just a little bit better."

We all know Bonnie Addarios -- individuals who can move beyond the imponderable to find meaning and strength and purpose in personal challenges, in the process creating great value for all of us. It bears, I think, repetition: no matter our individual circumstances, no matter how blessed or burdened, every day is an opportunity to have an impact. Some contributions will be small, some will be large; some will touch our friends and families, some will affect humankind. All are important.

A Loose End

For the record, after six years, my daughter has a terrific new boyfriend. I feel fortunate. He is wonderful -- and lots of fun to torture.