Making an Impact
Bill Long 7/20/06
Lessons from The Weakest of Us
If there is one consistent message I get from my 20-30 something graduate school students in law, it is that they want their lives to have an impact or, alternatively said, that they want to make a difference in life. And, students of course are not alone in this desire. Professionals go to conferences, write books, get their ideas "out there" and hold forth with passion and engagement because all of us, to one degree or another, want to have an impact in life. Coaches and sports analysts talk about "high impact" players; even law school deans are now into the act. I know this because my colleagues are often commended by my dean because they have published an article in a "top 30" law review journal. How do we know it is a "top 30" journal? Because someone has measured the "impact" of these journals. I once learned how "impact" was measured in law review journals. It had to do with assigning points to the "rank" of the people who wrote articles for the journal. For example, if you got a Supreme Court Justice to write an article for you (very rare), it was 1000 points, while if you got a local federal judge to write an article, you might only get 250 points. I think there were also points given for rank of school, circulation, etc. It all seemed very subjective to me, but not, apparently to people who were worried about their impact. Examples from many fields of this phenomenon could be multiplied.
So it caught me up short when, in the last two days, I have run into people or situations where their impact or influence was completely unrelated to their desire to "have an impact." And, it made me think that perhaps the biggest impact we will ever have on people, if that is our interest, will come when we don't worry about the impact we are having. Let me illustrate.
Autism and Impact
I spent the last two days as a guest of the Autism Research Institute of San Diego. Run for the past 40 years by pioneering researcher and parent of an autistic child, Dr. Bernard Rimland, this institute has kept in the forefront the importance of research for understanding the etiology and nature of autism (they are, rightfully, reluctant to speak of "cure" or "healing" of autism). In fact, Dr. Rimland's 1964 book Infantile Autism, now considered a classic in the field, was written to try to understand the nature of his son's (born in 1956) autism. In this book Rimland put to bed once and for all in this culture (though the myth still lives in some European countries) that autism is derived from "refrigerator mothers," i.e., mothers who are emotionally distant from their children. But he, whose doctorate was in experimental psychology, wouldn't have even entered into the world of autism research (then in its infancy) had not his own world been decisively influenced by his son's autism. It was the child who was just acting like a child, with terror-filled screams and objections to being held, with gentle rocking motions and inability to "connect" with the world around him, that led to a new way of perceiving autism in our culture.
And Dr. Rimland isn't alone in this. One of the more recent books on the biomedical approach to autism (i.e., which emphasizes that there are things, either in diet or various therapies, including some drug therapies, which may lessen the impact of the child's autism) is writen by Dr. Jacquelyn McCandless. She, a psychiatrist, "retooled" herself in 1996 after realizing that her 21 month-old granddaughter was exhibiting some of the classic signs of autism. Her well-written and passionate book, Children with Starving Brains (2002; 2005) is her attempt to respond to the impact that granddaughter Chelsey's autism had on her life.
One wouldn't be too far removed from reality to argue that it is the unintended impact of loved ones afflicted by this disability that has caused ripples not simply in the families affected but also in the larger medical and autism community. And, as I argue here, I think their disability can be perceived as a sort of gift to our society.
Losing a Father
Then, while I was still musing on the "unintentional impact" that autistic children have on the world, I ran into a friend and colleague who had just returned to Oregon from the Midwest, where he saw his father for the last time. While he was visiting his father, the father (85 years-old), who had been suffering a variety of serious age-related impairments, injured himself in a fall and then gradually slipped into a coma and died. My friend recounted to me the experience of being next to his father's side as he breathed his last. While it was the full context of my friend's father's life which had an effect on him and others, it was the manner in which his father died that seemed to stay with my friend on this occasion. Gentle breathing, labored breathing and then no breathing. Breath will, for my friend, never be perceived in quite the same way.
People of talent and ambition can sometimes almost drive themselves crazy worrying about their "legacy" in the future or their current "impact" on the world stage. These examples teach me that the most profound impact often comes when the one who projects the impact is quite unaware of it. Though I will never fully deny the regnant theory that impact is a calculated phenomenon, these two stories from this week have made me increasingly skeptical of the current theory.