When I was growing up, my family encouraged me to look out at the world, notice the injustices, and respond with my best effort. My parents reminded me daily to be mindful of the needs of others. I first wanted to be a teacher. I’d spend my free hours practicing, teaching my dolls and my younger brother lessons on my play chalkboard. When I got a bit older, I decided I wanted to help teach the world, perhaps by becoming a diplomat or working for an NGO. The world seemed beautiful throughout my adolescence. I had the quiet, contemplative, creative childhood every child deserves. Though I saw cracks in the foundation of my community (being treated differently in a homogenous community, unequal opportunities), everything still felt contained and protected by goodness. The world, despite harshness, truly seemed to me like it could be repaired.
As my world became wider, my view of service became messier and more complicated. After traveling with my family to Malaysia, where my father is from originally, for the first time when I was ten years old, I became passionately interested in international service. Seeing poverty, and a poverty to which my family had tangible and ancestral ties, changed my perspective on the work that needed to be done in the world. Subsequently, throughout my teenage years and early twenties, I participated in international health and education initiatives. I traveled to South Africa to study HIV/AIDS response, the Dominican Republic on a mission trip, Malawi to examine public health efforts, India to study the education of women, and independently to Cambodia to teach in a rural school.
This is a whole story in and of itself, one that contains nuances that could be fleshed out into whole chapters, but as I continued to travel, I became increasingly disillusioned with international aid efforts. I began to question with existential depth what it truly means to serve a community, to claim another community’s history, to try the mend the tears of a social fabric I could not fully understand.
I returned from Cambodia, my last international service trip to date, and turned my attention instead directly to the community in front of me at Middlebury. I served the women of Middlebury College as a sexual assault crisis worker. Living, working, serving, and being on-call, however, was challenging for me. I was too enmeshed in the place to sustain contribution. The pain of people I loved, the presence of my classmates, and a social culture too deeply engrained to be changed in four years colored the work. I felt often overwhelmed, like the ocean was swelling over the levies of my shallow boundaries, leaving my life flooded with confusion.
The notion of wanting to be of service is a dicey and beautiful thing. There are no right answers about how to make the world more equitable, more peaceful, or more just. Compassion, though, is holy. Cultivating joy, giving to others, ensuring that love is an active force in public life are all sacred acts. We cannot allow confusion to paint over the necessary ambiguity. We cannot resign to a philosophy of inaction. There are complacent ways to serve and wise ways to serve.
Complacent efforts of service are designed to make us feel better about ourselves, but either accomplish nothing or have unintended yet negative consequences. For example, going into a community and presuming what needs to be done, creating something temporary, leaving the community worse off than when you arrived would be an example of a complacent effort. International aid efforts, mission trips, or the work of NGOs are most commonly criticized for their unintended effects. Microloans, for instance, can leave those with no business experience in deeper debt; building wells that don’t function; donating shoes or glasses and putting local business people out of work; going into communities with no intention of ever returning. Of course there are similar critiques of local service initiatives, including serving a community with no knowledge of its true struggles or from a place of perceived superiority.
Sometimes we can become so entangled in our own thoughts or guilt about our own privilege that we freeze out of fear of doing the wrong thing or accidentally causing harm. Having worked with a range of international organizations and for several American non-profits, I believe engagement is key. We don’t want to lose power, creativity, or insight to distraction, cynicism, resignation, or fear. It is important to meet others at their level of understanding and bring them into this messy conversation about community, responsibility, generosity, and justice. Although, once you are there, –within an organization or movement—it is essential that you examine the work you are doing. You must reflect on the work that is being accomplished (or not), how funds are being used to engender change (or not), and whether the treatment of the population in question is ethical or not. Collectively, we can evolve our responses to injustice and lack of active love, but only if we all remain awake and aware.
I believe there are wise ways to serve, ways that help us collectively move towards presence and right action. The simplicity on the far side of complexity is wisdom: the union of clarity and compassion. In order to act wisely, we must keep our eyes open and find ways to sustain our generosity and energy.
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about what he described as the beloved community, a society eradicated of poverty, violence, and homelessness, stating, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” As King stated, the qualitative revolution begins within each of us. We reorient towards justice by embodying that which we seek to accomplish in the world. Quantitative change is essential as well. We must recruit our resources and skills to rewire existing systems to tend to the vulnerable and fix the rifts in our sociopolitical foundation.
Service is an act of rebuilding, an act of creation, and a radical offering. In order to create something of integrity—something that is beautiful and true – wisdom must be the guide. Being loveworkers requires that wherever we go we shine light so bright that shame and fear cannot exist there.
Cultivating a life of wisdom requires that we dwell in the ambiguity. It is one of the reasons why human life is so challenging. Human beings have a very difficult time coping with ambiguity, so we resort to reductive binary oppositions in public life (us/them, Democrat/Republican, good/bad).
My friends are actively invested in improving the world in tangible ways. Some friends are avid environmentalists. Others are becoming educators. Many work for non-profits or social impact organizations. Our outlook is bathed in an idealism that has yet to be tempered or dulled by years of disappointment. That idealism is precious because it inspires renewed hope in others and in more advanced generations, yet part of our task now is not to knock those who have made other choices with good intentions. Our task is to understand how good, too, lives in the realm of ambiguity. When we get caught up in rigid notions of what is RIGHT, we start screaming at one another with our eyes shut.
Good work can be done in all spheres, not just in non-profits, NGOs, or classrooms. If we seek to help and to create, we will accomplish good things wherever we are. There are no limits to contribution – and the positive transformation that follows—if people in all professions walk and lead with integrity.