Catharsis by generosity: the miracle of the Dan Wheldon Memorial Auction

Five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson donated items including his race-word helmet to the Dan Wheldon Memorial Auction. He also purchased Bobby Rahal's last race-worn helmet for over $10,000. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images for NASCAR)

If I were to summarize the news lately, I could probably rewrite the entirety of the 1990s Billy Joel song "We Didn't Start the Fire" from the events of the past month alone.

Granted, Lindsay Lohan and Kim Kardashian do not carry the kind of historical weight as thalidomide or the fall of Dien Bien Phu. But man, does it ever seem like there's plenty of reasons to think our race is doomed to an ignominious and stupid end in the very near future.

I'm not writing about that crap.

I'm writing about something positive. Ironically enough, it is a direct result of a major tragedy and the only thing that many IndyCar writers and fans have had to talk about lately - the tragically early demise of Dan Wheldon.

By now you've probably guessed that I'm speaking of the ongoing Dan Wheldon Memorial Auction that has essentially taken the sports world by storm. Not in the headlines, mind you - but in the community, the response to it has been more than just startling.

Graham Rahal, the fellow who kicked this all off by offering to auction his helmet for Wheldon's family, has found himself at the center of a hurricane-force windfall of goodwill. How much goodwill? Enough to raise over a quarter-million dollars in the space of less than a month.

The generosity is overwhelming, no matter how you look at it. And it's coming from all over, not just from within the racing community. Sure, there are racing stars donating items, and their names are the cream of the racing crop - but there are items coming in from artists, actors, and even fans that were totally unsolicited.

It's a response that, if I'm being frank, is disproportionate to need. But still the items come, still they sell for astonishing amounts of money. It's as though Graham's helmet was a crack in a giant dam, and once the water started flowing there was no way to stop it.

Why is this? To my way of thinking, it goes beyond mere generosity and the desire to help a fellow human being, although they are the greatest and most worthy motivators. No, there is more behind it than that. It seems to be an excuse to indulge in something more than self-interest, a justification to embrace every philanthropic impulse that simply needed a cause to find full expression.

It is as though there is a communal drive to give that has been crying for release. In today's society there are so many causes that abound, almost all of them worthy of support, that the sheer number of choices can overwhelm people who are not directly affected by them. Then, too, in a down economy it is hard for people to part with money that suddenly is necessary for elemental needs instead of luxuries.

In that respect, the simple idea of a widow and her children suffering from a loss with an uncertain future in store became a catalyst. In place of money, people sent things - items they knew had value for someone else. Those donating overcame their sentimental attachments to the items themselves, and those purchasing found a legitimate justification to spend their money on them - sometimes in amounts that are clearly beyond the actual item value.

It is, then, a catharsis as much as it is an outpouring of generous spirit. Faced with an overpowering sense that man's inhumanity to man is a foregone conclusion - a feeling reinforced with every tragic news story, every hateful demonstration, every political stab in the back, every public train wreck that fuels the worldwide news cycle - a chunk of the human race took the Wheldon family's need and used it as a battering ram to knock down the oppressive walls surrounding their own hearts.

The results are incredible, unbelievable, mind-boggling. They also give us hope that humanity can still be united in good causes, that people can rise above petty differences in belief or paradigm to embrace each other in a spirit of goodwill.

So as you surf the news tonight, wondering if the human family has any better angels left in their nature, sit back and ponder what happened when a young race driver accidentally gave us all an excuse to do something great. There is hope for us yet. 

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