Gates’ philanthropy raises bar for us all

Leonard Pitts : Syndicated Columnist

In the first place, I never knew Bill Gates was a Spider-Man fan. But his stated reason for transitioning out of day-to-day responsibilities at
Microsoft two years from now to devote his energies to charity work (“… with great wealth comes great responsibility…”) comes suspiciously close to the creed by which the webslinger has lived since 1962: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

In the second place: wow.

Gates’ announcement last week that he will henceforth work full time with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — founded with his wife in 2000 to confront global health and education issues — has the feel of a potentially seismic shift. Working part time, as it were, Gates has already given or pledged more than $100 million to fight childhood AIDS, $1 billion to fund scholarships for minority students, $750 million to buy vaccines against diphtheria, measles, polio. His work has changed lives and saved them, and has earned Gates and his wife — along with Bono, lead singer of the group U2 — the distinction of being named Time magazine’s 2005 Persons of the Year.

It boggles the mind to think what Gates might achieve now that good works will be his full-time priority.

I will leave it to the people in the business section to analyze what his departure portends for the company he co-founded and the marketplace it dominates. I am more intrigued by the bar he raises, the example he sets. Not simply for Gates’ fellow multi-billionaires, but also for thousandaires and hundredaires like you and me.

And here, I should probably mention my mid-life crisis. I will be 50 next year, which makes me two years younger than the world’s richest man.
So far, I can report that I’ve had no desire to take a girlfriend half my age or to blow the kids’ college fund on a little red sports car. But I do find myself pondering, with an intensity I haven’t felt since my 20s, this project we call The Rest of My Life.

I mean, if life’s first act is about growing up, coming of age, learning the lessons that shape you, and the second is about acquiring things, getting ahead, building a career, shouldn’t the third be about something bigger than one’s own aspirations and comforts? Shouldn’t it be about doing something, leaving something, creating something that makes life better for somebody else?

Yeah, I think it should.

Which is why I’ve always been a little envious of people who can write billion-dollar checks. Not for the luxuries and frivolities that kind of money can buy, though that would be fun. What attracts me more, though, is the idea of the burdens you could lift, the conditions you could improve, the educations you could give, the diseases you could eradicate, the enlightenment you could bring, the lives you could change.

Standing on the doorstep of 50, though, has a way of disabusing a man of his illusions. I am never going to be point guard for the Lakers, never going to be lead singer of the Temptations, and I’m never going to write a billion-dollar check. Not one that clears the bank, at any rate. Not unless they give me a really, really big raise.

It occurs to me, though, that maybe the lesson of Bill Gates’ example — for hundredaires and thousandaires, at least — lies less in Spider-Man’s maxim than in this one: Do what you can, where you are, now.

Maybe that’s why the Quran says, “Whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.”

Maybe it’s why the Talmud says, “Whosoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”

Maybe it’s why the Bible says, “Love one another.”

I can’t write a billion-dollar check. But I can paint a fence, mentor a child, maybe even endow a small scholarship. Bill Gates has me thinking with fresh energy about those and other things I can do — the responsibility I have — to change my corner of the world.

As midlife crises go, that’s not a bad one to have.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at:
lpitts@herald.com