THE most important and poignant question any person can ask is, ``What can I do?'' Important, because essential change in a free society begins with the perceptions and commitments of a single individual. Poignant, because too many people assume they are helpless in the face of national and world problems and needs. This question, ``What can I do?'' frequently comes up following a public lecture on outstanding issues. Over the past quarter-century, in traveling to many parts of the United States, I have found no lack of concern over major issues such as environmental deterioration, the arms race, international tensions, mass hunger, or homelessness. People want to help but don't know how. Invariably, they will say that they don't know where to take hold or that, even if they did, they're not sure it would make any difference.
Behind the question is a basic fallacy or misunderstanding of the function of a responsible citizen in a free society. An individual is not expected to bear the entire weight of the world's problems by himself or herself, or to sally forth, Don Quixote style, tilting against windmills or demons. The role of the individual may be more circumscribed than that of governmental leaders but it is nonetheless vital and useful. First of all, the individual has access to information. Second, it is possible to discuss issues with others who are equally concerned. Third, there are organizations working in a particular field - organizations that exist for the very purpose of optimizing your strength and that of people like you. Fourth, there are targets for communication - lawmakers, officials, journals of public opinion. In a national election, your vote may be only one out of many millions. But a ``vote'' on major issues via the post office has far more power.
All these courses of action come under the heading of effective individual citizenship. Consider Harold Benjamin, a Los Angeles attorney who, through personal experience, became aware of the profound emotional needs of cancer patients. He mobilized fellow citizens in founding the ``Wellness Community,'' a place where cancer patients could come at any time for information or fellowship; where they were part of a support group, exchanging ideas, hopes, and fears with one another; where they could attend lectures or other functions; and where, most importantly, they could help provide emotional support for others. The usefulness of the pioneer group Harold Benjamin started in Los Angeles has led to the formation of Wellness Community centers across the country.
When I think of what an individual can do, I also think of Cleveland Amory, social critic and best-selling author, who devotes all his non-writing time to the cause of animals. Amory is the founder and operating head of the Fund for Animals, an organization opposed to mindless violence against animals. He regards the killing of animals for sport as reprehensible. He is not opposed to the use of animals for valid medical research. He is opposed to needlessly callous and brutal treatment of animals in research. He has had, let it be said, a remarkable record in carrying out his stated goals.
Yet another individual who has demonstrated ability to make a difference is Eileen R. Growald of San Francisco. She perceived the need for public education on the role of the patient in optimizing medical care. The organization she founded, Institute for the Advancement of Health, serves as a bridge between medical science and the lay public in the field of mind-body studies. The institute publishes a journal, ``Advances,'' which reports on developments in the field of psychoneuroimmunology, as mind-body studies are more formally known. In the seven years since its founding, the IAH has won wide respect from professionals and interested laymen. Some may say that, as the daughter of David Rockefeller, Mrs. Growald is in a favored position to achieve any goal she wishes. I find it difficult to regard her family station as a valid criticism. If all those who are in a position to do good were to commit themselves to a worthy purpose, the gain would be incalculable.
And Andy Lipkis, of course. As a 15 year-old boy, Andy was appalled at the death of trees because of smog. He learned of smog resistant trees and began his crusade to plant trees. Since that time, Andy Lipkis has been persuading all who would listen that we are not helpless against deforestation and its baleful effects on the environment. He has formed an organization called Tree People which has been responsible for planting millions of trees. President Bush has taken up Andy's cause and the happy prospect now is that an important prop in the American environment will be restored.
One thing every person most certainly can do is to support individuals like Benjamin and Amory and Growald and Lipkis. And one thing I can do most happily is to pass along to them instruments of such support.
Opportunities for creating a better society abound everywhere. Homelessness, poverty, illiteracy, and environmental deterioration will not be solved by government alone. If every person who is concerned about the homeless, for example, were to help just one person who is without shelter, or one person who has been caught up in the undertow of squalor, or one person who needs to be rescued from drugs, or who is a teen-age mother in need of knowledgable and compassionate guidance, the connections could create the most exciting and exhilarating social revolution in our history.