Acts of Service

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Have you ever asked yourself how come the world, with all its complex structures, hasn’t collapsed? It is a miracle that this unimaginably complex system goes on without plunging into total chaos.

If every day the mail is delivered, and the traffic lights work, and the buses run more or less on time, and we are lucky enough to find the food we want, and the newspapers are at our doorstep, and water flows when we turn the tap, and the lights go on: all this is thanks to the work of countless individuals. To be sure, it is their way of earning a living. But if the world still goes on, it is also thanks to their goodwill, to their wish to help make things work for everyone. It is thanks to their kindness and their acts of service.

Acts of service are a resource and an energy on par with oil, water, wind, nuclear and solar energy. It would be immensely useful to pay more attention to it, find ways of evoking it and harnessing it, organize training courses for it, teach it in school, publicize it on TV, use it in ads and turn it into a fashion.

The Dalai Lama summed it all up this way when he recently visited our area:

“I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the development of love and compassion. The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being. Cultivating a close, warm-hearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the principal source of success in life.”

We can never be kind out of guilt or compulsion. Our task is to discover that which we can do best of all, and which gives satisfaction, maybe even joy. That will be our key. Being kind is the simplest way to become who we really are.

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 relationship is no angelic exception in a sordid world 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.

There are a fantastic variety of ways we all have for making another human being feel better. Here are a few examples:

•A friend makes a joke that lifts your spirits.

•A book opens you to new perspectives.

•At a concert, the music is so beautiful it moves and transforms you.

•You have a terrible toothache, and a dentist fixes the problem quickly and painlessly.

•You need time and tranquility and a kind soul offers to look after your children, tidy your house and prepare dinner.

•Someone listens to you and understands you fully and you feel at peace with yourself.

•A teacher or therapist or spiritual guide stimulates in you capabilities you never knew you had.

Service is a basic attitude in which we transcend ourselves. Our needs, worries, and gripes are temporarily put to one side. We forget them for a while because there is work to be done elsewhere. And it is exactly this capacity of self-transcendence that helps us, because it frees us from the prison of our own ego.

Sometimes service runs into the belief that all we can possibly do is useless, that we live in a world full of injustice, abuse of power, sickness, unhappiness of such huge dimensions that whatever we do will only have a fleeting, insignificant effect, or no effect at all. And that, whether we like it or not, we think what we do is useless.

Maybe we ought to think in another, deeper way, and realize that we live in a world of subtle interactions and unpredictable turns of events.

Bob Mueller is the senior director of mission and stewardship at Hosparus. The views in this column are those of the writer.