As a young doctor, I thought that serving life was a thing of drama and action and split-second judgment calls. A question of going sleepless and riding in ambulances and outwitting the angel of death. A role open only to those who have prepared themselves for years. Service was larger than ordinary life, and those who served were larger than life also. But I know now that this is only the least part of the nature of service. That service is small and quiet and everywhere. That far more often we serve by who we are and not what we know. And everyone serves whether they know it or not. We bless the life around us far more than we realize. Many simple, ordinary things that we do can affect those around us in profound ways: the unexpected phone call, the brief touch, the willingness to listen generously, the warm smile or wink of recognition. All it may take to restore someone’s trust in life may be returning a lost pen or a dropped book.
Rachel Naomi Remen
The highest service we can perform for others is to help them help themselves –Horace Mann–
The sweetest lives are those to duty wed, Whose deeds, both great and small, Are close-knit strands of unbroken thread Where love ennobles all. The world may sound no trumpets, ring no bells; The book of life the shining record tells. The love shall chant its own beatitudes after its own life working. A child’s kiss set on thy sighing lips shall make thee glad; A sick man helped by thee shall make thee strong; Thou shalt be served thyself by every sense Of service which thous renderest.
Lev Tolstoy (related by Thich Nhat Hanh)
This is the re-tale of a short story of Tolstoy’s, the story of the Emperor’s three questions. Tolstoy did not know the emperor’s name. . . One day it occurred to a certain emperor that if he only knew the answers to three questions, he would never stray in any matter.
What is the best time to do each thing?
Who are the most important people to work with?
What is the most important thing to do at all times?
The emperor issued a decree throughout his kingdom announcing that whoever could answer the questions would receive a great reward. Many who read the decree made their way to the palace at once, each person with a different answer. In reply to the first question, one person advised that the emperor make up a thorough time schedule, consecrating every hour, day, month, and year for certain tasks and then follow the schedule to the letter. Only then could he hope to do every task at the right time. Another person replied that it was impossible to plan in advance and that the emperor should put all vain amusements aside and remain attentive to everything in order to know what to do at what time.
Someone else insisted that, by himself, the emperor could never hope to have all the foresight and competence necessary to decide when to do each and every task and what he really needed was to set up a Council of the Wise and then to act according to their advice. Someone else said that certain matters required immediate decision and could not wait for consultation, but if he wanted to know in advance what was going to happen he should consult magicians and soothsayers. The responses to the second question also lacked accord. One person said that the emperor needed to place all his trust in administrators, another urged reliance on priests and monks, while others recommended physicians. Still others put their faith in warriors. The third question drew a similar variety of answers. Some said science was the most important pursuit. Others insisted on religion. Yet others claimed the most important thing was military skill.
The emperor was not pleased with any of the answers, and no reward was given. After several nights of reflection, the emperor resolved to visit a hermit who lived up on the mountain and was said to be an enlightened man. The emperor wished to find the hermit to ask him the three questions, though he knew the hermit never left the mountains and was known to receive only the poor, refusing to have anything to do with persons of wealth or power. So the emperor disguised himself as a simple peasant and ordered his attendants to wait for him at the foot of the mountain while he climbed the slope alone to seek the hermit.
Reaching the holy man’s dwelling place, the emperor found the hermit digging a garden in front of his hut. When the hermit saw the stranger, he nodded his head in greeting and continued to dig. The labor was obviously hard on him. He was an old man, and each time he thrust his spade into the ground to turn the earth, he heaved heavily. The emperor approached him and said, “I have come here to ask your help with three questions: When is the best time to do each thing? Who are the most important people to work with? What is the most important thing to do at all times?” The hermit listened attentively but only patted the emperor on the shoulder and continued digging. The emperor said, “You must be tired. Here, let me give you a hand with that.” The hermit thanked him, handed the emperor the spade, and then sat down on the ground to rest. After he had dug two rows, the emperor stopped and turned to the hermit and repeated his three questions. The hermit still did not answer, but instead stood up and pointed to the spade and said, “Why don’t you rest now? I can take over again.” But the emperor continued to dig. One hour passed, then two. Finally the sun began to set behind the mountain. The emperor put down the spade and said to the hermit, “I came here to ask if you could answer my three questions. But if you can’t give me any answer, please let me know so that I can get on my way home.”
The hermit lifted his head and asked the emperor, “Do you hear someone running over there?” The emperor turned his head. They both saw a man with a long white beard emerge from the woods. He ran wildly, pressing his hands against a bloody wound in his stomach. The man ran toward the emperor before falling unconscious to the ground, where he lay groaning. Opening the man’s clothing, the emperor and hermit saw that the man had received a deep gash. The emperor cleaned the wound thoroughly and then used his own shirt to bandage it, but the blood completely soaked it within minutes. He rinsed the shirt out and bandaged the wound a second time and continued to do so until the flow of blood had stopped.
At last the wounded man regained consciousness and asked for a drink of water. The emperor ran down to the stream and brought back a jug of fresh water. Meanwhile, the sun had disappeared and the night air had begun to turn cold. The hermit gave the emperor a hand in carrying the man into the hut where they laid him down on the hermit’s bed. The man closed his eyes and lay quietly. The emperor was worn out from a long day of climbing the mountain and digging the garden. Leaning against the doorway, he fell asleep. When he rose, the sun had already risen over the mountain. For a moment he forgot where he was and what he had come here for. He looked over to the bed and saw the wounded man also looking around himself in confusion. When he saw the emperor, he stared at him intently and then said in a faint whisper, “Please forgive me.”
“But what have you done that I should forgive you?” the emperor asked.
“You do not know me, your majesty, but I know you. I was your sworn enemy, and I had vowed to take vengeance on you, for during the last war you killed my brother and seized my property. When I learned that you were coming alone to the mountain to meet the hermit, I resolved to surprise you on your way back and kill you. But after waiting a long time there was still no sign of you, and so I left my ambush in order to seek you out. But instead of finding you, I came across your attendants, who recognized me, giving me this wound. Luckily, I escaped and ran here. If I hadn’t met you I would surely be dead by now. I had intended to kill you, but instead you saved my life! I am ashamed and grateful beyond words. If I live, I vow to be your servant for the rest of my life, and I will bid my children and grandchildren to do the same. Please grant me your forgiveness.”
The emperor was overjoyed to see that he was so easily reconciled with a former enemy. He not only forgave the man but promised to return all the man’s property and to send his own physician and servants to wait on the man until he was completely healed. After ordering his attendants to take the man home, the emperor returned to see the hermit. Before returning to the palace the emperor wanted to repeat his three questions one last time. He found the hermit sowing seeds in the earth they had dug the day before.
The hermit stood up and looked at the emperor. “But your questions have already been answered.”
“How’s that?” the emperor asked, puzzled.
“Yesterday, if you had not taken pity on my age and given me a hand with digging these beds, you would have been attacked by that man on your way home. Then you would have deeply regretted not staying with me. Therefore the most important time was the time you were digging in the beds, the most important person was myself and the most important pursuit was to help me. Later, when the wounded man ran up here, the most important time was the time you spent dressing his wound, for if you had not cared for him he would have died and you would have lost the chance to be reconciled with him. Likewise, he was the most important person, and the most important pursuit was taking care of his wound.
“Remember that there is only one important time and that is now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the person you are with, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future? The most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.”
Tolstoy’s story is like a story out of scripture: it doesn’t fall short of any sacred text. We talk about social service, service to the people, service to humanity, service for others who are far away, helping to bring peace to the world, but often we forget that it is the very people around us that we must live for first of all. If you cannot serve your wife or husband or child or parent, how are you going to serve society? If you cannot make your own child happy, how do you expect to be able to make anyone else happy? If all our friends in the peace movement or of service communities of any kind do not love and help one another, whom can we love and help? Are we working for other humans, or are we just working for vane glory that society bestows on people for performing “community service”?
Those of you that are parents of small children know about the effort and sacrifice that is required to raise them happy and healthy. And we would submit that you feel that your children are your greatest source of happiness. This same feeling of pride and love comes to many of those who are called to the ministry, teaching, medicine, or even the hospitality industry. Serving others is sometimes a thankless job, yet it remains a reward in itself. Here are some ideas to consider for increasing your personal level of service, while bringing happiness to yourself and others:
Before Jesus shared the Last Supper with his disciples, he took on the menial task of washing the feet of his disciples. As we consider what Jesus was teaching to his followers, we must keep in mind that this was done in the context of the Passover meal as he prepared to become the sacrificial lamb for the sins of all the world. The disciples would look back and remember that before the meal began, Jesus washed their feet as an example for them. He rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. Jesus was performing the task that usually a slave would perform. It was a humble act. It was customary at the time when a guest arriving for the meal had been greeted, a slave would remove the guest’s sandals in preparation for washing his feet and so that the sandals would not bring in dirt that had been picked up along the way. Then the feet were washed by a servant, water being poured over them, which were then rubbed with hands and dried with a towel. Jesus was willing to perform this humble act on the disciples. He was the Son of God and the Creator of the universe, and yet here he is washing the feet of his disciples. What is there that we are too proud to do? What activity in our organization is there that is beneath us? The reality is that the most powerful thing that you can do as a leader is to humbly serve your followers.
The selfless athlete is not caught up with the typical questions that burn in the brains of the vast majority of competitors: “What’s in it for me?” “How many points/goals/touchdowns can I score?” “Will I be the one starting?” “Will I get all the attention that I deserve?” “Am I getting the most playing time?” “Will I be the MVP?” Instead, the selfless athlete asks him/herself far more meaningful questions. “How can I give to my teammates?” “How can I make those around me better?” “What can I do to help the team be successful?” “How can I contribute to this sport?” And, a question that would blow most athletes’ minds, “How can I give to my opponents?” Selflessness is an essential ingredient in team harmony, and without this all important team quality, there can never be any great individual success. Why?
The most successful teams in and out of sports play together as a team. There’s no question that it’s never the best team that always wins, but the team that plays best together. All the players on a championship squad intuitively understand this concept and know that you can’t get to winning through individualism. Selfish behavior always detracts from the team’s day to day performance and overall mission. NOT occasionally, NOT sometimes, NOT often, but ALWAYS!
Remember that old cliché’, “there’s no “I” in TEAM.” The problem with sports in our country is that when you look at our most visible role models, our professional athletes, you see far too many “I”s and too few real TEAMS. Too many pro athletes have a “superstar” mentality. That is, they think that just because they have extraordinary athletic ability, they are a gift to mankind and have free license to act any way they would like. Towards this end they are selfish, narcissistic and exhibitionistic, believing that the team is secondary to, and should revolve around them. They believe that the rules of the group don’t really apply to them and instead, they should have their own set of rules that are sprinkled with a heavy dose of preferential treatment. Even the expression, “franchise player” reflects this over-inflated value of the individual and breeds an attitude of selfishness. If you are a franchise player, then the team gets built around you, instead of molding all of the individual players together into a superstar team. This is completely backwards and just like having the tail wag the dog.
The selfishness that underlies this “me first” mentality is fueled by fear and insecurity. The fear and insecurity is based on the self-limiting and mistaken belief that the “pie” of success is limited in size, and that if someone else gets a big piece, then that means your piece will be that much smaller. This insecurity and fear-driven mentality will lead you to be jealous of those teammates who get more playing time and/or recognition than you. It will fuel your anger at opponents who beat you. If left unchecked, these darker, but quite normal feelings will lead you to say and do really stupid, embarrassing things that will ultimately, assuming you have your head on straight, leave you feeling disgusted with yourself.
By serving others and putting the team first, you are investing in long term success that will ultimately make you far more successful than if you had decided to selfishly go it on your own. Like a good investment, it may take you time before you can see any real dividends or payoff. It requires tremendous patience and trust. Through the process it’s perfectly normal to worry that you won’t get what you feel you truly deserve. However, in the long run, this higher road of selflessness and of serving others will transform you in ways that selfishness never could. Giving is the only real way that you can begin to get in meaningful ways. Serving others is the only way that you can become a true champion.
When we are thinking about the virtue of service we need to remember that “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”
A revered wise man once journeyed to visit a younger wise man who was known for his spiritual devotion. The older wise man was very much impressed with the young man’s total immersion in prayer and study, and asked the secret of his unwavering piety. The young wise man replied that by concentrating deeply and exclusively on his studies; he was able to ignore any outside influences that might distract him. The older wise man had noticed that many of the nearby villagers from the young wise man’s town were involved in activities that were quite contrary to living a life of virtue. This disturbed the older wise man so he said to the young wise man, “When it is very cold, there are two ways to warm yourself. One is by putting on a fur coat; the other is by lighting a fire. The difference is that the fur coat warms only the person wearing it, while the fire warms anyone who comes near.” The point being that the young wise man should be spending more time teaching and serving the people of his village than in self-indulgent prayer.
Our gifts and blessings are not intended for our use alone, they’re intended to benefit all people – from those in our immediate families to those in larger community. Each of us has been given distinct talents and abilities, and, it’s our duty to share them with others through service. A skill you or I take for granted might fill an indispensable need for someone else, and have a far greater impact than anyone could imagine. A kind word, a caring gesture, for example, might make someone’s day, or encourage an addict to enter rehabilitation, or even convince someone not to commit suicide!
Serving others means acknowledging that you are more than an individual concerned about yourself alone; that you are part of a larger community, and therefore responsible for your neighbor.
Serving others means dispelling the cold by building a fire that warms others as well, instead of just putting on a coat that warms only you.
Have you ever had a new jar of pickles at a picnic? You just couldn’t get the top off. Everyone’s burgers are getting cold so you start passing the jar around. Seven people try their hardest but it is the eighth person who gets the top off, seemingly with ease. Is the eighth person stronger than the first seven? Of course not, although those seven people might make that assumption! It took the collective effort and strength of ALL eight people to get the job done.
The first step in serving the needs of others is that we need to develop an awareness of the needs of those around us. It’s not always quite so easy for us to see the needs of people around us, though. If we really want to become the kind of people who minister to the needs of other people, we have to develop a consciousness or awareness of those around us who have needs. And we are not just talking about physical needs here. Those are often easy to spot. But people have emotional and spiritual needs, too. And those are usually much harder to discern.
What compassion is all about is seeing someone else with a need and then being willing to do whatever we can to help the person with his or her need – not because the other person deserves it, but because we have been put in a position to help with those needs. Our path has put us into the life of another and we have been provided us with resources that we can use to meet those needs. True compassion is not just an emotional feeling; it’s an act of the will. It’s a decision on my part to serve the needs of another regardless of how I feel about that person. Most people are only willing to help people that they like, people who are most like them. Heck, that’s easy, anybody can love people we like. The real measure of love is whether or not we can love the unlovable.
This is where the process breaks down for most of us. We see a need and we even have compassion for the other person. But, we’re not willing to take the next step. Because the next step is that we actually have to have contact with the other person. And sometimes that’s not real comfortable. It can be stinky and dirty and messy. In today’s high tech world, we don’t like to make contact. We would much rather send them a text, email, or tweet them. Serving others means getting your hands dirty. Sometimes that means we have to take risks. Risks like the threat of disease, real bodily danger, contempt, anger, and often humiliation. Sometimes “contact” means that we need to get involved in the life of the person in need. Most of us aren’t any too quick to get involved with the life of a homeless person, an unemployed ex-felon, a single mom, someone of a different race, a social outcast, a terminally ill patient, or a migrant laborer.
Would you be willing to make contact, to get involved in these lives in order to serve their needs? If you’re at all like me, here’s the weak link in the process of serving the needs of others. In those cases when I do see a need and when I have compassion on the other person, I often choose to just bypass this step. I look the other way. I figure someone else will help them out. Or sometimes, maybe I’ll ease my conscience a little by just giving the person some money without making eye contact with them, or even better, give someone else the money so that they can get involved in the person’s life on my behalf.
I have a great personal story about this. Remember the 2010 earthquake in Haiti? An estimated three million people were affected by the quake. Many countries responded to appeals for humanitarian aid, pledging funds and dispatching rescue and medical teams, engineers and support personnel. I had always been a big fan of Mother Teresa, so when I learned about the earthquake, I contacted the Missionaries of Charity’s international office and told them that I would like to help out with their efforts in Haiti. I was thinking of giving them a good sum of money, so naturally when my call was not returned for over a week, I became indignant. I asked myself “What kind of an organization are they running?” Then one day, I got a phone call from one of the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity. She wanted to know how soon I could be in Haiti? I stood there speechless, they didn’t want my money….they wanted me!
Sometimes, maybe donating money is all we can do, but there is no substitute for the human touch that accompanies our contact and involvement in the lives of others.
If we are going to care for the needs of others, then the first thing we have to do is to determine the real needs of the other person. Sometimes the needs are obvious. That’s usually true when it comes to the physical needs of others. If someone is hurt or hungry, or needs clothing, we can usually determine those needs pretty easily. But sometimes, when the needs are more emotional or spiritual, they are not quite as easy to see. That’s where we have to go back to that very first step and work at being conscious and aware of the needs of others. That’s another reason the whole idea of contact and involvement is so important. The more time we spend with other people, the greater the likelihood that we’ll be able to discover their deepest needs. Then, once we determine what the needs are, we have to use whatever resources we have at our disposal to meet those needs.
When we are brought into the lives of others and we have been blessed with the resources to meet needs in their lives and we fail to care for those people, we not only rob them of the help they so desperately need, but we also rob ourselves of the blessings that come from serving them.
Whenever we choose to serve the needs of other people, there is always a cost involved. Sometimes our time, sometimes our emotions, sometimes our pride, sometimes our financial resources, and often all four.
We turn our heads from dozens of opportunities to serve others every day. We have conditioned ourselves to look the other way. We need to retrain ourselves and this often starts with “baby steps”, like holding a door open, giving a helping hand, tackling a fix-it job for that elderly neighbor lady, or handing that homeless person a few McDonalds gift certificates.
Most of us intend serve others, but you know what they say “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.
Let’s take action!
Richard Foster offered St. Therese of Lisieux as a wonderful example of serving others in the way of Christ. In her short life (she lived from 1873 to 1897) she learned a lifestyle of praying while offering simple, humble service to others: The “Little Way”, as she called it, is deceptively simple. It is in short, to seek out the menial job, to welcome unjust criticism, to befriend those who annoy us, to help those who are ungrateful. For her part, Therese was convinced that these “trifles” are more meaningful than the greatest deeds of recognized holiness.
The beauty of the Little Way is how utterly available it is to everyone. From the child to the adult, from the sophisticated to the simple, from the most powerful to the least influential, all can undertake this ministry of small things. The opportunities to live in this way come to us constantly, while the great fidelities happen only now and again. Almost daily we can give smiling service to nagging co-workers, listen attentively to silly bores, and express little kindnesses without making a fuss.