I spend a lot of time in coffee shops. This is mainly due to the fact that I am, as they say, “between work.” Thus I’m continually looking for employment, but writing cover letters, resumes, and the perpetual trolling of job boards can become quite tedious. So I do what many people do when bored: I surf the web. Normally this just involves reading a few news stories, and maybe clicking over to www.illwillpress.com to watch the ranting of Foamy the Squirrel. But on one of these brakes I recently came across an article in the Smithsonian Magazine about Henrietta Lacks. Then I found another article about her in The New York Times.

I had never heard of her before, and to be honest, outside of medical researchers, most of the general population has not either. But despite the fact that Henrietta fell into one of history’s cracks, her impact on the human race is on the same order of magnitude as the invention of the Internet. In a nutshell, she was a poor, black, tobacco farmer, who in 1951 had a culture of her cells taken without her knowledge. She died of cervical cancer, but her cells live on down to this day. They are responsible for assisting in finding the cure for polio; they were the first human culture shot into space, so that we could understand the effects of zero gravity on the human body; and Henrietta’s cells have been used in just about ever major medical study since they were taken from her body more than a half century ago.

I love stories like these, even though they do have their dark side. For example, according to the articles Mrs. Lacks’s family is still impoverished and can’t afford health care. This is both heartbreaking and unfair and should not be forgotten. Further, as previously mentioned, the doctor that took the sample, did not tell Henrietta what he was doing, which raises several ethical questions. But Henrietta’s story also begs the question, does anybody every really know the impact that they will have in the world?

Conversely, sometimes people get remembered for the wrong thing. Robert McNamara was never really all that popular in Washington DC, and is remembered mostly for his role as Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam Conflict. But did you know that he was also the person who put seatbelts in cars? Not by himself of course, but he had a major role in pressing Ford to place them into cars. It is a cheap solution to keeping people safe in an auto wreck which has probably saved more lives than were lost in the entire Vietnam Conflict, but nobody connects the name McNamara to automotive safety.

The known and the unknown. We crowd around one another on this rock flying though space, and most of the time, we barely feel that we are keeping up with our own lives. I worry about finding work, which is something I have in common with millions of people throughout the country and the world. Others worry about even more basic needs, like the roof over their head, or rebuilding after the earth literally tears their world apart. But as we move through our day, it must be conceded that most people truly are unaware of their individual impact on the world at large.

Enter Farris Bueller and his immortal wisdom: “Life moves pretty fast. You don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” These two sentences not only sum up this post neatly, but they also reflect the way people move through the world: with eyes squarely fixed on a point just about two feet in front of our toes. The occasional break is helpful, because while you are “goofing off,” who knows what you will find? A thrilling story about the first use of human cells in medical research. New facts about someone or thing you felt you already had the goods on. Or if you are in a coffee shop, you might just wind up talking to the person next to you and making a new friend. In fact that happened to me last week. And while I need a new job, I also always need good friends. Making a new friend is truly good work for a day and a lifetime, and there is no telling what it will create. What paths will open up? From that one event something wonderful and lost to the cracks of history may just come about. Even more fun to think about, is that one day in the future one or both of us may be read about as someone else hunts for a job and just needs to look around.