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The Immortal Life of Kindness

Updated: Nov 7, 2023

“There are generations yet unborn, whose very lives will be shifted and shaped by the moves you make and the actions you take.” ― Andy Andrews

I got the idea for this blog a few days ago, but a lot can happen within a few days. My thoughts around the topic have been nothing less than a raging storm. All of the monthly writing I attempt to do (I realize I missed October) tends to be more personal, and this time might be even more so. I’ll try to keep it as short as usual, but at the time of this writing, I can’t make any promises.

A few days ago, I heard about a yard sale with lots of books, so I went to see if I could find any treasures. I encountered an interesting variety, but I came across a rough-around-the-edges paperback copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I learned of the book while completing graduate biology work several years back. For those who have never heard of the book or its subject, I’ll try to boil it down. Henrietta Lacks was a woman who died in 1951 after a battle with cervical cancer. It's an unfortunate story on the most basic level, but not unusual until one dives a little deeper. Some of the attending physicians at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, removed cells from Henrietta’s tumor during treatment, still not unusual (except that the cells were removed without her knowledge or consent), but hereafter is when the story becomes a veritable scientific bombshell. The doctors discovered that some of the cells from Henrietta’s tumor could be kept alive and even multiplied in culture. Unlike most human cells, these “HeLa cells” did not die after a few division cycles. That made them very useful for experimental purposes, and the cells of Henrietta Lacks became the focal point of major medical research advancements such as the development of the polio vaccine, cancer research, improvements in in vitro fertilization, and the mapping of the human genome. It’s a pretty crazy journey for a few tumor cells to go on, but here is the kicker: neither Henrietta nor any of her family members knew about the nearly 50 million metric tons of HeLa cells cultured, nor the thousands of patents involving them, until decades after her death.

I know I went on a scientific tangent there but stick with me.

Henrietta Lacks probably never imagined all the good she would do when she was battling the cancer that would eventually kill her. It made me think about how most of us will never really know our impact on this earth. Often, when a loved one passes, people share acts of kindness the individual did during their lives. I know I have found myself sharing acts of kindness with someone grieving a lost loved one. It was only after revisiting the story of Henrietta Lacks that I really began to consider what it is that can give us each our own little piece of immortality. I believe it is kindness. Kindness will outlive us all. The good things we do for others remain long after we are gone. Think about it– I challenge you. Think of a tremendous act of kindness done for you by someone no longer living. Your memory makes their act of kindness just as real and new as the day you first received it. If you let your imagination go, you can still see their face, hear their voice, and conjure vivid remembrances of place and time shared with them– memories not decayed at all by time and not diminished by the bumps and bruises of the human experience.

In 2010, Andy Andrews published The Butterfly Effect: How Your Life Matters. You can find his speeches all over the internet (I will link one here), but in the book, he argues that one act of courage over 150 years ago changed the course of human history forever. He gradually makes the case that what we do at any moment can matter much more than we think. I tend to agree with him. Lest I sound too preachy, I’ll be the first to admit that I sometimes forget that. At times I have failed to act as if that were true. What we do matters. Kindness matters. I know that the littlest things can greatly matter because I’ve spent days thinking about a thousand little things someone did that mattered so much to me– things that will always matter to me. So, today, as I sit here writing to help cope with an emotional moment in my own life, I ask us all to pursue the little shred of immortality that comes from living a life of kindness.

“Remember, there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.” —Scott Adams

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