The Human Touch




December10, 2011


Last weekend I was reminded of the need for humanity. Sounds lofty? It isn’t really, in practice.

We spend hours behind computers, on telephones, attached to devices that, well, connect us to the world and simultaneously disconnect us from the world. Much of this mechanization has also meant that sometimes we’re left searching for the human touch.

How many times have I wasted an afternoon on the phone, being transferred from one customer service agent to another? How many times have I approached shops in our community to support local events and been directed to a faceless number with a mechanized voice, asking me to leave a message? (And never heard back from them.) How many times have we all been frustrated by conflicting rules and guidelines that lead us nowhere?

For example, last week, I was told that to be considered as a tutor for a local high school, I would have to attain certain certification. So, naturally, I approached the district agency responsible for this; but, there, was told that I had been misinformed. Fair enough. So, I went back to the school and informed them that this level of certification wasn’t needed if I just wanted to offer my tutoring services to local students.

I was told that would not be allowed because of a rule set by the district. But had the district not just dismissed this rule? Are you confused yet? I sure was! And the ping-pong match continued with no end.

It’s days like these that frustrate us, make us irritated and question — what happened to just helping each other out? Sounds too naive? Well, perhaps, it is.

But then, I bump into people who remind me of the beauty of humanity, with the power to persevere against odds, and generosity that has no explanation and doesn’t really need to.

Last weekend, I helped with a local run for the fight against polio, a disease that still plagues part of the world and has recently erupted again in parts of Africa. A number of us from the Rotary clubs rallied together for this second annual run.

There were two men present who, to me, exemplify the potential of humanity, the ability to rethink rules, and the belief that kindness really is “cool.” In fact, since when did it become “uncool” to be kind?

Jim Lewis, a Rotarian, former high school teacher, and polio survivor, is one incredible machine — with the human touch. He’s battled polio his entire life; it struck him when he was a little boy. He walks with the help of two braces, as his muscles have suffered from the disease. But you’d never really know it ’til you asked him about it.

He drives back and forth between his Los Angeles-area home and Ventura County, where he helps with local events, runs a Rotary club in Moorpark and speaks to local groups about the disease that’s touched his life.

You’ll see him hauling around a massive iron lung, something that people used to be placed in decades ago, when the first signs of polio became evident in an individual. It’s a monstrous machine. And it follows his SUV, like a wagging tail.

Two years ago, I traveled with Jim to India, a place that he’s grown to love, though he still struggles with the local cuisine and the madness on the streets. He goes there to immunize children against polio.

The long journey takes a toll on his weathered legs. But he goes. And he goes with enthusiasm. Some days, he had more energy than me as we went through the dusty, hot alleys together.

In recent years, he’s shared that generous spirit with me as well, becoming a mentor, a friend and an inspiration. We have starkly different pasts, different presents and perhaps even different futures ahead. But he sees in me a passion for the human touch and I see the same in him.

He pushes people at times with his lengthy lectures on global public health. He questions basic principles, trying to see how they can be improved or adapted. But, ultimately, he’s just a man with a simple mission: to help.

The second gentleman who reminds me of the power of the human touch is Larry Emrich, a man who in similar ways faced polio at a young age, though to a lesser degree; a man who’s always had a global soul though he’s resided in the county for many years now; a man who leads with a gentle touch.

Larry speaks softly, eloquently and intelligently about most things in life. A former English teacher, he has a passion for stories and a curiosity about the world that would be hard to suppress.

He too has been a fighter against polio, traveling to the front lines, advocating it through word-of-mouth and print. And last weekend, he was at the run, early, huddling near his car with a hot cup of coffee, ready to serve.

When a big group of kids surrounded the iron lung, on display courtesy of Jim, Larry walked over and started sharing stories with them about its significance.

He even set up a little booth with End Polio Now items, many of which are always in his car, traveling with him regularly. I’ve yet to ask him a question on the topic that he can’t answer or find the answer to. If he doesn’t know it, he seeks it out and promptly I’ll get an email informing me.

With him, I’m always being educated. More so, I’m always being enlightened. And much like Jim, he’s become a mentor, a friend and an inspiration.

These are two people who still believe in the human touch, in finding solutions, in defying the odds, testing their own limits, and most of all, in dreaming of a kinder, gentler humanity in the future.

On days when I find myself lugging a phone around, pressed against my ear as I get passed on from one robotic answer to another, or when I keep getting turned down by employers, editors or financiers for my ideas, I think of these two, of people like them, who are quietly affecting the world they live in.

And then, the frustration wanes away. The optimism sets in again. And I’m reminded to be patient, resilient and empathetic. So, this holiday season, perhaps, we can all invest a little more in the human touch.

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