Monday, March 1, 2010

Thon On

I had my running gear on late last Sunday morning, but there I sat in my family room staring out the window at what is an all-too familiar scene in Flagstaff. Snow. Wind. Cold. And a hill workout ahead of me.

I couldn’t push myself out the door, wasting lots of time on Facebook, returning e-mails that could’ve waited, watching the cable television I decided to install for the first time in my adult life (for the record, I’m not yet convinced it’s a wise investment…), lamenting the departure of a BFF who had been visiting from L.A. for the weekend…generally wallowing in lethargy, feeling less than enthusiastic about running and life in general.

I was in search of inspiration and in a very shameless, 2010 way of dealing with such a quandary, I posted my quest for motivation on my status update. Desperate times, friends, desperate times.

Then a very un-Facebook thing happened. It served a purpose. My friends came through— real ones, like people I can communicate with regularly without typing on any electronic devices (as it turns out, my phone has a nifty function that allows for voice transmission, which facilitates a custom from days of yore called a conversation. Who knew?).

A couple of these for-real friends simply posted a link and told me to click on it. I followed their directions. I wasn’t disappointed.

In front of me, a live feed from Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center, where thousands of students, alumni, kids, and their families come together each February for the weekend-long Penn State Dance Marathon, affectionately known to most of us as Thon. And while the no sleeping, no sitting, two-day dance party is the main event, it is really the culmination of a year-long fund-raising effort by Penn State students that benefits the Four Diamonds Fund, which supports families battling pediatric cancer at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center.

It is the largest student-run philanthropy in the nation. Since 1973, it’s raised almost $70 million--$7.8 million this year alone (yes, $7.8 million during a recession. Take a moment to let that sink in…). It involves 15,000 student volunteers, 700 dancers, and an experience I am still unable to adequately put into words.

This was one of the first Thon weekends I’ve missed—a byproduct of my grand experiment of living 2,500 miles away. But I tuned into that live feed just as “Family Hour” was beginning, when the children receiving cancer treatment and their families stand before the tens of thousands of students, many of whom have been on their feet for more than 40 hours, to say the most heartfelt, emotional, meaningful “thank you” you’ll ever hear. Ever. If you’re left untouched or unmoved, I promise that you do not possess a heart.

A boy took the microphone and declared to the packed house in front of him that he didn’t come to talk about his cancer, or really any of the “bad stuff.” He preferred to talk about why he loved Thon and why he is grateful for all that is good in his life. Not more than 11 years old—most of which has been spent within the confines of a hospital, battling for his life—he could find more to be happy about and thankful for than most adults I know. Myself included.

In that moment, I started remembering where I came from, where I learned about the person I wanted to become, and what I wanted to do with my life. Being involved in Thon during such formative years was a little bit of magic. We found out, perhaps too early in life, what can happen when passionate, intelligent, energetic, dedicated, and downright fun people come together and pour themselves into every detail and logistic of a cause they wholeheartedly believe in. Every year a new group of students do as we once did: push themselves to make the effort more successful than the last, in order to make life better for people who need it. They find out along the way that when they look outside themselves—in big ways and small—not only are they making their little piece of the world a better place, but their own lives are happier and more fulfilled because of it.

It was a utopia (Thontopia?!), of course. Many of us often joke that it was a rude awakening when we were sprung from that bubble, hatched into the cruel realities of the “real world,” where so many obstacles get in the way of simply doing good. The basic lessons always stick though: do nice things for others, work hard, and be grateful. Not hard to do, but unfortunately far easy to forget in the rigors of everyday life.

I took a little personal inventory as Thon continued on my computer screen. I didn’t really enjoy what I saw, knowing that the past few months had largely been all about me: moving, shoveling, adjusting, getting sick, getting better, being injured, healing, good running, bad running, water damage, work stress. The list could go on, but only if I allowed it to. No wonder I felt lethargic—self pity takes a lot of energy.

So I headed outside for that hill workout in the snow and wind and cold, which at that point seemed largely inconsequential in the grand scheme. I thought about how my very first “marathon” had nothing to do with running, but it—and the kids—taught me how to stand, in so many ways, even when it seemed impossible. Thon gave me four words to live by—Four Diamonds—I continually recite in my head when the day seems long: courage, wisdom, honesty, and strength.

So, yeah. Inspiration and motivation? Apparently I have all I need to last a lifetime, if I only remember it’s there. Status update not required.