Herewith a little simple story. A few days ago, I flew next to a man who works for a huge biotech company. He spends his days and nights trying to find a vaccine for lung cancer. A few days after that, I spent a day e-mailing back and forth with a woman who has just gotten some serious lung problems from working in moldy, post-Katrina houses in New Orleans and getting some kind of crud into her system. She plans to rest a while here in Los Angeles, then go back.
A woman who does my makeup when I am on some shows told me today that she takes one night a week to go to a homeless shelter in downtown L.A. and teach homeless women how to do their hair and apply makeup and dress themselves from thrift shops so they will look good enough to get a job and be able to move out of the shelter. Of course, she’s unpaid.
Last week, I was a host at a humane society awards ceremony where a man got an award for exposing a hideous roundup and mass stabbing to death of dolphins in Japan, at the risk of his life and career.
At the same ceremony, a woman was anonymously honored for going undercover to expose the unspeakably cruel conditions in which egg-laying hens are kept here in America — living their lives in a space the size of a piece of paper — at the risk of her safety.
This, of course, is on top of millions of Americans risking their lives in Iraq, in Afghanistan, on police forces, on the border patrol, on fire departments, in inner city schools and social welfare departments.
Once in a while, I take my selfish head out of the stock pages and stop thinking about how to make more money. Then I realize how many men and women in this great country are doing amazingly brave, unselfish, generous, caring work for others, human and animal, without the means to help themselves. They do it pretty much anonymously and for no money.
The magazines and the TV shows are all about stars’ hairdos, billionaires’ houses, playboys’ cars, superstar athletes’ salaries. Guess what. It’s all baloney. The real work that makes this country sing is done by the woman teaching the homeless how to get a job, rebuilding the homes of the Katrina victims, saving horses in Montana from getting shot by riflemen in helicopters, risking their lives to disarm IED’s in Karbala.
Oprah Winfrey talks a lot about meaning. To her, it’s apparently having her picture on the cover of her own magazine every single month in a different pose. But the woman with the mold in her lungs has a better answer: it is serving others. I, lost in my own hurricane of fear and self-pity and envy, like many commentators, can only bow my head in awe at how many people are better than I am…and hope, some day, to learn from them.