For the past few weeks, I have been enjoying the use of a thin, black vinyl raincoat. I never thought I would like an item of clothing this much, but it has provided a warm, dry shelter more times than I can count already, and it doesn’t look half bad on me, if I do say so myself. Besides being useful, stylish and indispensable, it was also wholly unexpected.
Here’s how I got it:
It was the last week of our donation sorting project at Stadt Mission. We had finished pairing and sorting the mountain of shoes the week before. As you may recall (but if you don’t, here’s a handy link), this project had not been one of my favorites. It was dirty, nasty, hot, isolated work and I was beyond relieved that we didn’t have to do it anymore. Instead, we were given the task of sorting coats that were to be given to the homeless and/or needy.
Surprisingly, the job was not so much about sorting as throwing away. Apparently, the organization receives so many donations that many of the coats had to be removed to make room for the new ones. We were given very specific instructions. Coats with buttons (when you’re really cold/old/disabled, it is harder to button than zip), coats that didn’t look modern, and anything that had the slightest stain/rip/deformity was thrown into trash bags.
We must have filled at least 20 bags. At first it seemed like a huge waste of clothing. But the more I thought about it, the more I was touched by the thoughtfulness inherent to the instructions. Not only did they provide for the physical needs of the homeless/impoverished, but they also aimed at preserving their dignity.
During our break, the other workers called us into the main room for drinks and snacks. A rack of beautiful, real fur coats was in the room. I am defenseless against soft, furry objects and couldn’t help moving over to it to pet the sleeves.
One of the head volunteers (the donation sorting is run by a mother-daughter team) noticed and said, “As a goodbye and thank-you gift, we would like to give each of you one item of your choosing.” We could choose from anything they had down there. They literally had tons of stuff of every item imaginable. Not to mention those fur coats, which were worth at least 100 euros each (and that was the discount price they were to be sold at, not their original ones).
The offer was tempting but we balked. It just felt wrong. We had been doing this service project to help others, not ourselves.
We vigorously protested and hit upon the fool-proof argument that because of luggage restrictions, we couldn’t take anything. They kept pressing us to take something, at least one of the coats. We countered that as we were going to India, we wouldn’t need them.
Finally, the other head volunteer produced two new, black, weatherproof jackets. She pressed them upon us and we couldn’t say no to her (she is a Mom, after all). They were thin and light enough to refute our luggage concerns, and she said, we would need them.
She was right. Since we received our jackets about 3 weeks ago, the weather in Berlin has turned from sunny to rainy, from warm to chilly. That jacket has become my go-to outerwear item.
But I cherish that jacket not only because it protects me from the elements, but because it also serves as a reminder to me. When I see it, I don’t just see its color and shape, I see the kindness of the gift, that people wanted to take care of me despite my protests. I see that people were looking ahead into my future and trying to provide for my needs. I see that people literally fought to show their appreciation for me.
When I look at that jacket, I see the truth about service: When you serve others, you help yourself more than you know.
In light of the above statement, some may conclude that service is inherently selfish; because you receive so many benefits from helping others, it is not truly selfless. From there it’s a hop, skip and an insanity jump to thinking that you must make yourself miserable so that others can be happy.
I reject the notion that in order to perform real service you can not be as happy as the person you performed the service for, that you must make them happier than yourself. First of all, who can measure such a thing? If I am smiling and they are smiling, how do I know whose joy is greater? If I am laughing and they are smiling, is it not condescending and incorrect to think that their joy is not as great as mine?
And why must there be a monopoly on the peak of happiness? Is it fair or even logical to think that because I or someone else is at the peak of happiness, no one else can be?
(Although if at the end of “helping someone” you are bubbly and cheerful and they are miserable and crying, or vice versa, I would say it’s a good bet real service did not occur. Real service does involve empathy.)
Real service: The enigma within the paradox within the swirling vortex of confusion
I believe it is possible to do good things for bad reasons. By that I mean: doing things to help others because your end goal is really about helping yourself, whether to curry favor or to look good, etc. But in the end, that is not real service.
Real service is about taking the focus off yourself, and doing things because you are truly thinking about others’ needs and how to help them. In doing so, you can’t help but improve yourself as well.
It’s a paradox that still manages to surprise me. I guess because it seems so oxymoronic.
The message of society today that is subtly and not-so-subtly enforced seems to be: If I put others before me, I will suffer. It’s dog-eat-dog. Everyone must be in it to win it — for themselves.
Most everyone says: Of course you should help others! But the real subtext is: Help others—but only to a point, don’t let them get ahead of you and definitely don’t do it if it causes you discomfort in any way.
But Jammie, some might say, isn’t it possible to do good things for the right reasons and just wear yourself out? To be so attentive to the needs of others that you neglect yourself and end up feeling and being worse off than before?
To that I say, if you were truly trying to serve others, you would know that a mentally and physically healthy you is in the best position to help others. If you are working yourself to death, I would suspect there are other motivations fueling you. Real service spurs you to grow and to improve.
Many, many people have told me they admire what Bjorn and I are doing and that they could not do it themselves. But the truth of the matter is that everyone can.
Real service is not all big projects in exotic, foreign locations but the quiet acts performed in the details of daily life.
Real service is empathy and action based on it.
At the heart of real service is doing for others what you would want done for you.
So I guess those people who say that service is not self-less are correct, in a way. Your self must be involved. You must give yourself to others to perform real service. You must involve your love, your concern, your time.
But in return, you get more than you thought possible. While gaining happiness for yourself should not be the end goal, it is a hallmark of real service.
Truly, a life of service is the life best-lived.