Most of us go through our lives, from day to day, completely asleep.
Suffering can wake us up.
You might think this story is about my friend Martin Bayne. He once had a career selling long term care insurance. Then, in 1994, he was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s.
It woke him up. He became an advocate for buyers of his insurance as Mr. Long Term Care. Even when he himself came to need full-time care, he didn’t give up, becoming an advocate for patients. And, now, for that pig making its way down the full length of the python, the tens of millions of baby boomers facing their own (our own) decline, decay and death, he is our advocate, our guide, and our friend.
Martin’s not alone. Michael J. Fox has done most of his best work since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Mohammed Ali has had Parkinson’s for years, and Janet Reno served as Attorney General with it. They are all great examples to a new generation of sufferers, like singer Linda Ronstadt, fight trainer Freddie Roach, and basketball player Brian Grant, all of whom have “woken up” to the angels of their better natures after being diagnosed.
But you don’t need Parkinson’s to get the wake-up call. Any intimation of mortality, or infirmity, can make any of us connect our minds to our bodies and start changing.
I didn’t start taking care of myself until being diagnosed with hypertension in 2000. My wife finally got on the exercise train after tearing a meniscus ligament in her knee a few years ago.
You may want to do the same.
What does being “awake” mean anyway?
It means living a full life, every day, in every way you can. It means smiling through your troubles and not giving in to despair. It means caring about others more than yourself.
That can be hard. My mom, who is 90 years old, was recently moved into a personal care home and I can hear the struggle in her voice, each day I call. “I want to go home,” she says. But incontinence and the onset of dementia mean she needs 24 hour care, care me and my relatives can’t provide for her.
Will her struggles awaken her? Or will then send her down for the last time?
No one knows until they face that music.
Of course, there is another way to wake up. When you reach the top of the mountain, look down, and see the trash littering that mountain, it can wake you up big-time.
I knew Bill Gates, as a technology news writer, back in the 1980s. He was a nerdy, driven, focused marketer, so asleep to the world outside himself that some of us journalists felt sorry for him.
Then, as he achieved his own goals, a strange thing happened. Maybe it was his wife Melinda. Maybe it was having kids. Maybe it was finding he was the world’s richest man, but that it was making him the king of a dung pile.
So he transformed himself. He took a small foundation he’d started in 1994, with some vague ideas about global health, combined it with a foundation he and his wife had started for giving libraries Internet access, and threw his whole fortune into it.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation isn’t just a giant pile of money. It is $38.8 billion, and climbing, dedicated to wiping out dread diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and polio, some of which are coming back because ignorant, sleeping Americans refuse to vaccinate their own kids. It is not just his fortune, but that of mega-investor Warren Buffett as well.
And it’s not just a foundation. It’s the family business. Bill, Melinda, and Bill’s father, a former lawyer whose name he shares, have become immersed in the work, traveling the globe to see what their money is doing and what it still needs to do. When Bill Gates lands in Seattle now his skin is crinkled from days in the hot sun, but his eyes are bright, alive, and shining. His kids won’t join the class of the ultra-wealthy, because in his example they will have something much richer.
The city where I live, Atlanta, was built by men like this. Robert Woodruff, the legendary chairman of the Coca-Cola Co., gave millions of dollars anonymously and didn’t let his role be revealed until near the end of his long life. He did more for the world after his 1955 retirement than he did in building the company. Jimmy Carter transformed the office of ex-President when he left it aged 58, turning the Carter Center into a leading voice for democracy and charity.
Whether you wake up in the pit of despair or on top of the mountain, it’s the waking that matters most. People who are awake go through each day with a smile on their face. They have something to do, their days and lives matter, because they have chosen to make it so. Bernie Marcus created the city’s largest tourist attraction with the money he made as CEO of Home Depot, and has focused his own foundation on the fight against autism.
You can join them. You don’t have to reach the top or see the bottom to do that. You just have to commit to it. Seek meaning over money, value people over wealth, do your part however you can, from wherever you are.
Just wake up.
Dana Blankenhorn has been a professional journalist since 1978, so he has yet to work a day in his life. He turns 60 in January, and knows he is luckier than most people.