There are infinite ways, implicit or explicit, microscopic or gigantic, episodic or lasting, superficial or substantial, of bringing into the life of another person some benefit, relief, cheerfulness, hope, well-being, intellectual or spiritual growth, ecstasy.
This kind of relationships is no angelic exception in a sordid world full of selfish and warring individuals. It is, on the contrary, a normal event, often a part of our everyday interactions, at the base of kindness. It is service.
Happily, service is also in the little things, the tiniest ones: to hold the door open for someone, to give warm appreciation, to offer your seat on the bus.
What interests me most is the fantastic variety of ways we all have for making another human being feel better. Let us look at a few examples:
It is easy to think of service as sacrifice, because it takes our time and energy, but it is just the opposite. Service is advantageous to those who do it, not only to those who receive it.
Let us look at this process step by step:
1. At any moment of our lives, requests for help and occasions for service all about us abound. We have only to look. The kids need help with homework, a passerby needs directions to the station, the endangered natural environment is crying out in pain, or an old person, forgotten by everybody, is dying.
2. If we do not respond to these requests, we will probably feel ill at ease. If we do respond, we will have to develop the ability to satisfy them. We need patience to help the children, we need the appropriate knowledge to help nature, we have to be able to find the old person who is dying alone. Or we simply need to know the way to the station.
3. The process for discovering and developing abilities and knowledge for doing useful work takes a lifetime and arouses in us unexpected potential. It involves not only knowing the way to the station, but also the ability to say it clearly and the kindness to stop and explain, even when in a hurry and sacrificing precious time. We are all offering the products of our work.
4. To offer something useful to someone can reward us personally. We may receive gratitude and admiration, and go home satisfied. But often it does not happen like that. Millions of parents have done a lot for their children, but the children grow up and mistreat or forget them. Doctors, teachers, nurses, tradesmen have devoted their lives to serving a litigious, demanding public, which takes their service and spirit of sacrifice for granted. A cook may take hours to prepare a delicious dinner, but the customers devour it in minutes and do not even pay him a compliment. Many volunteer workers face waiting, boredom, ingratitude, and even hostility.
This is the decisive stage of service, because it is here that we are put to the test. If our true goal is to gain admiration and recognition, show how good we are, or collect brownie points, sooner or later we will give up. If instead the motivation is to help someone heal, feel better, find herself, know what to do and make progress in her growth, then we will continue.
Service helps us purify our own motivation, become disinterested, and therefore freer.
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