Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Total Perspective Vortex

This morning, my mother called to remind me that today was Make a Difference Day.

I'd never heard of that, so I got online and looked it up.

As cynical as my initial knee-jerk reaction to the National Day of Insert-Cause-of-Your-Choice-Here might be, there's something to be said for having a reminder pop up now and then not to get so self-involved that I forget that there are other people in the world and that the things I do have an impact upon them.

Alas, there's no ribbon for that.

In Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams introduced a device called "The Total Perspective Vortex". In his story, it was invented by a scientist whose wife badgered him about having a sense of perspective. So he took a piece of cake, extrapolated the entirety of creation from it (like you do) and on a microscopic point resting atop a microscopic point, he placed a sign that said "You Are Here". And seeing one's insignificance in relation to the whole of "one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation" was enough to destroy your mind.

And comedy hijinks ensue.

All beings, Adams reasoned, constantly divide themselves into smaller groups in an effort to fight the enormity of it all.

I've recently read a few blog posts by cancer survivors railing against the practice of wearing pink ribbons or the curious practice of Facebook status memes meant to raise awareness.

And to be honest, the Facebook thing annoys me too.

The number of people in my life who have either beaten or succumbed to cancer isn't something I care to dwell upon very often. It's just too... big. When it jumps out at me, it overshadows everything else and I can't think of anything else. I'm just a microscopic point on a microscopic point holding a sign: "I am here."

Those damn Facebook posts do that too me every time. And I remain like that until I've managed to write my way out of it, push it back with a phalanx of giant robots until it is sequestered once more in my mental basement, where it will lurk under the stairs until the next time it reaches out to grab my ankle.

But that's not the fault of the person I saw wearing a pink ribbon or even the person who cut and pasted a status meme onto their Facebook wall.

Adams reasoned that our minds cannot cope with how small we are in terms of the bigger picture. That if we were forced to confront the impunity with which the world moves regardless of our individual whims, we couldn't handle it.

He's both right and wrong. Right in that we do indeed constantly retreat from the enormity of the world without and wrong insomuch as we can take it. In small doses.

And maybe that's the value of these commemorative days. It's certainly why I have a special place in my heart for this one.

Make a Difference Day. Nothing telling you what to do or how to do it or who to do it for. Just make a difference. A positive one.

Lately, I've been working with an organization called "" which is a mentoring drive in the Tacoma area. The site acts as a clearing house for agencies and volunteer organizations ranging from the write@253 writing center where I volunteer to Big Brothers/Big Sisters.

The marketing campaign I designed for them hinges on the graphic to the right, which handily explains our name. Look at how you spend your time: sitting in traffic, surfing the web, watching TV, and find an hour you can reallocate to changing the life of one child.

Even if you don't live in the south Puget Sound area, I encourage you to reach out to one of these organizations and ask "How can I help?"

Wearing a pin probably won't help cure cancer, nor will expending electrons on a Facebook post. But deciding you'll Tivo your favorite show so you can spend an hour helping a kid with his homework? That effect is immediate and measurable.

Even if I am a microscopic dot atop a microscopic dot, within my reach are hundreds of other microscopic dots and the shadow I cast touches an unknowable number of other microscopic dots.

Which is why I'm wearing a blue rubber band on my left wrist as I type this. And why I don't hide the friends who remind me about the things I'd rather forget. Because my grandfather and my father were taken from us prematurely by cancer.

And while these things do cause the beast under the stairs to stir and grumble, they also keep me from pretending it's not there. Because when i do that, I forget to reach out to the person next to me. To break out of my protective isolation and touch another person.

Because this microscopic dot is here to make a difference. I hope you are too.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).