"In the Service of Life."

In a recent Smithsonian Magazine article about Haiti, the photographer Troi Anderson spoke about the “poverty industry, aid efforts better at serving themselves than the people they are supposed to help.”

This made me search for an article I had saved for twenty years (see post “Stuff, Memories and the Stuff of Memories”) and thought of often in my own work, “In the Service of Life,” by Rachel Naomi Remen (Noetic Science Review, Spring 1996).  In the article, Remen reframes the question from “how can I help”, to “how can I serve?”

Like Anderson, Remen notes that helping is based on inequality. We help with our strength, but serve with our whole selves. When we help, we may take away more than we give, making the person being helped feel even more lacking.  

How many aid organizations approach Haiti with the attitude of “you are poor, you are hungry, I know how to help,” often ignoring the existing culture and its strengths? This is not to say that help isn’t needed in a crisis, or that problems such as corruption prevent aid from reaching those who need it most. But some attempts to help fail because they are more about self-satisfaction for the helper than a commitment to the person in need.

Remen goes on to say that we should not aim to “fix.” We fix what is broken, unable to see what works, albeit not always in ways we understand or value. Helping and fixing are the work of the ego, serving is the work of the soul. And whereas we burn out from helping and fixing, service is renewing.

It is not curing to which we should aspire, Remen says, but healing. She concludes by saying that “in 40 years of chronic illness I have been helped by many people and fixed by a great many others who did not recognize my wholeness. All that fixing and helping left me wounded in some important and fundamental ways. Only service heals.”

A friend of mine once told me about two oncologists she visited at the same time, one with her husband and one with a good friend. Her husband’s doctor cared for them both with compassion and nourished their spirits while treating the disease. She referred to her friend’s physician as “Dr. Death.” He cured the disease but left her friend’s spirit depleted.

The other magazine on my night table, Hadassah, had an article about Tevel b’Tzedek, “the earth in justice,” a program for Israeli volunteers in Nepal. Founded by Micha Odenheimer, the program is based on his philosophy that Judaism is “not only about going inward for our own history but also creating a more just, compassionate and beautiful world.” Like Remen, Tevel’s international staff coordinator, Gal Vinikov, says “helping someone doesn’t make you better than they are.”

This is a difficult concept to grasp without seeming to denigrate our positive impulses to help. But it is an important distinction, especially as we encourage service among our youth. Many school systems across the country have “service” requirements. As a member of a variety of scholarship committees over the years I had the opportunity to read applications from students who far exceeded the number of service hours required for graduation. Unfortunately, I was never convinced that these or any other students understood the concept of service. They checked all the right boxes, but to what degree did they actually engage with the population they “served?” They put in the hours, but there was no demonstration of reflection or learning. They were, as Remen and others would say, good at helping, but not serving.

Over this same period, I had the privilege of being on the Board of the Campus
Compact of the Mid-Atlantic, and seeing the emergence of its commitment to collaborative problem solving and holistic service. “P-20 CONNECTS” is a project that involves under-served students, schools and communities in creating solutions to problems they identify. Colleges and universities are not saviors, but partners. Students from the community work alongside college students in ways that enhance their academic achievement, self-awareness and civic engagement. These students are more likely to understand the difference between helping and serving as they mature and to make true service part of their lives.


Barbara ViniarComment