As we rode home on the bus, I knew that we had made a difference. I could see it in their eyes. The 13 students I had recruited from the ranks of the Honor Society, which I advised, had given up a Saturday morning to come with me, trusting that I was going to involve them in something meaningful.
This was no ordinary field trip. Our school had recently taken its Advanced Placement students to the Experience Music Project in Seattle as a reward after completing their AP exams. That trip had been totally for fun. Our trip was different. We had just visited the Whatcom County Volunteer Mobilization Center (VMC), a hub designed to coordinate volunteers in the event of a natural disaster, such as a severe 9.0 earthquake. Simply jumping into one’s truck with a shovel, some rope, and a few water bottles and driving off in the general direction of the disaster with your heart in the right place and a genuine intent to help, though laudable on some level, is undesirable, and could put you at risk. Preferably, one would register as a volunteer with the VMC and report there when needed so that you could be deployed to a place and in a manner that would put your skills to their best use.
The bus arrived at the VMC at about 11:00 am, and we were met by the Project Director, named Mel, who led us into the facility that housed the VMC. The building itself had been erected to serve as the security headquarters on the U.S. side of the border during the Winter Olympics in Vancouver B.C. When the Olympics ended, the building remained, and several county organizations teamed up to bring the VMC to life. Once inside, we signed in with our names and times of arrival, and then met John Gargett, the deputy director of the Whatcom County sheriff’s division of emergency management. Mr. Gargett graciously led us on a comprehensive tour of the VMC facility, explaining the purposes of its many rooms while talking us through various scenarios and how they would be handled should a major disaster ever strike the county. One was left feeling confident that someone was in control no matter what happens.
After our tour, we got back on the bus and headed into downtown Bellingham to an office facility where the VMC was preparing the assembly of a number of what they called “Go-Boxes.” These turned out to be large plastic containers filled with supplies and equipment necessary to establish mobile offices at disaster sites. Our students inventoried the equipment for them, a task which Mel told me would have taken their staff five or six hours to do. We did it in twenty minutes. While the students were working, Mel expressed to me how thankful he and the other staff members were and wondered why it was that other schools weren’t getting involved. We plan to stay in close contact, and I will be recruiting students for future volunteer opportunities with the VMC in the years to come. Some of our students expressed interest in becoming registered volunteers, and I supplied them with the necessary paperwork to do so. When the bus got us home, I took the kids out for ice cream to reward them for not only giving up their Saturday, but for doing so in such a meaningful and selfless way.
Service. It is one of the four pillars of the National Honor Society, the others being Scholarship, Leadership, and Character. It is also one of the most effective ways I have found to bring genuine meaning to our existence. In his Meditations, Emperor Marcus Aurelius speaks of the value and necessity of service:
At day’s first light have in readiness, against disinclination to leave your bed, the thought that ‘I am rising for the work of man.’ Must I grumble at setting out to do what I was born to for, and for the sake of which I have been brought into the world? Is this the purpose of my creation, to lie here under the blankets and keep myself warm?’ ‘Ah, but it is a great deal more pleasant!’ Was it for pleasure, then, that you were born, and not for work, not for effort? Look at the plants, the sparrows, ants, spiders, bees, all busy at their own tasks, each doing his part towards a coherent world-order; and will you refuse man’s share of the work, instead of being prompt to Nature’s bidding? ‘Yes, but one must have some repose as well.’ Granted; but repose has its limits set by nature, in the same way as food and drink have; and you overstep these limits, you go beyond the point of sufficiency; while on the other hand, when action is in question, you stop short of what you could well achieve (77).
The students who went with me to the Volunteer Mobilization Center that Saturday morning could well have stayed in bed for as long as they liked. Instead, they chose to get on a bus and selflessly engage in an activity that served the greater community. A cynical ember in my heart wonders if there was some other motive running through their minds: “Impress the adviser and he’ll write us a good letter of recommendation some day;” “Hey, I get to spend the morning with a bunch of my friends instead of doing my chores today.” Sure, it’s possible. However, even if such shallow thoughts might have served as their initial motivations (which I doubt, knowing the kids well), the looks in their eyes as they listened and the enthusiasm with which they worked demonstrated that the worthwhile nature of the task fulfilled their desires to serve. They just needed the guidance and opportunity to do so. Young people want to serve, they sometimes don’t know how to direct that energy. When shown the power of genuine service, they can get hooked on it pretty quickly.
Marcus Aurelius offers us a further observation regarding service that is worth pondering:
There is a type of person who, if he renders you a service, has no hesitation in claiming the credit for it. Another, though not prepared to go so far as that, will nevertheless secretly regard you as in his debt and be fully conscious of what he has done. But there is also the man who, one might almost say, has no consciousness at all of what he has done, like the vine which produces a cluster of grapes and then, having yielded its rightful fruit, looks for no more thanks than a horse that has run its race, a hound that has tracked his quarry, or a bee that has hived its honey. Like them, the man who has done one good action does not cry it aloud, but passes straight on to a second, as the vine passes on to the bearing of another summer’s grapes (79).
This is how we should approach service—selflessly. I do not expect thanks for the acts of service in which I participate. I see things that need doing, and I do them, knowing that they needed to be done. We are here to help one another, because we can’t navigate the challenges of this world alone. Help your family, help your friends, but help strangers as well, because they too are fighting great battles the depths of which you cannot fathom. Do things for others because those others will, from time to time, need help. You will too one day. If you help others now, they too will be there for you when you need it, and someday you will.
Every day, I see students and fellow teachers who are stretched to their limits. As a result, they can sometimes be bitter or irritated as a result of being stressed and overworked. I started a program at our school called the Honorgram Initiative. The concept was simple. I asked the students in the Honor Society to watch for fellow students or staff members who did something worth recognizing, or to thank someone who they noticed was working hard on their behalf. When they saw something deserving of it, they picked up an “Honorgram” from me, just a small certificate on which the students could write a brief, handwritten note that recognized the effort they had witnessed. Those Honorgrams were then delivered to the intended recipients through student office assistants, or, if intended for teachers (or bus drivers, or cafeteria workers) they would be put in staff mailboxes. The initiative made a difference. Thousands of such messages were written and delivered. Teachers who received them have them posted on their walls. Students put them in their Senior Portfolios along with sports certificates and letters of recommendation. The initiative helped lift people up and make them feel that their efforts were being noticed, if only in a small way. Was I thanked for creating that program? Actually yes, by a senior Honor Society student who felt it had also made a difference. Did I care if I was thanked? Not at all. I appreciated it when my student acknowledged the effort, but I certainly didn’t sit around wondering when or if I myself was going to receive an Honorgram for all the work I had put in to create the program in the first place. I did it because I saw a need in my community, and I acted on it.
So, help our family, our friends, strangers…but what about those who bother or annoy us? Should we help them too? You bet. Marcus Aurelius again:
Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with
Interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness—
all of them due to the offender’s ignorance of what is good or evil. But
for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility,
the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit
himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow-
creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine);
therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me
in what is degrading. Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of
him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet,
or eyelids, or like the upper and lower rows of his teeth. To obstruct each
other is against Nature’s law—and what is irritation or aversion but a form
of obstruction? (45).
As he says, we were born to work together. All of us. If someone is standing in your way or obstructing you, ask yourself if you own any of that, and what you could do to improve the situation. After that, if they still work against you, work to educate them, explain things to them, and try to understand what battle they are facing that is making them act as they are. In this way, you serve them—and the situation. Our leaders today, rather than obstructing one another as fervently as they do, should pick up a copy of The Meditations…and meditate on it.
So, a call to action. Think for a moment of a small act of service you could perform today, or in the near future, and go do it. Who needs you? Who needs what your skills have to offer? Is there an older citizen in your immediate community who is alone and could use some help, or just some company? Is there a single parent who looks strung out and overwhelmed that could use just a night to themselves? Have you seen someone recently who has worked incredibly hard but no one has seemed to notice? Of course you have, if you have been looking. If you haven’t, try looking. They are all around you. Write them a note, by hand. Not an e-mail. A note. Let them know that you have noticed and appreciate their efforts, that their work has improved the world.
There is an insular narcissism that is slowly infecting the culture. I see a lot of that, too. People are becoming too engrossed in their self-centered worlds. Selfless, relentless service is the antidote to this. If each one of us can dedicate ourselves to the spirituality of service, working to serve our communities in whatever capacities our individual talents allow, then we can bring greater meaning and fulfillment to not only our own lives, but more joy to the lives of those around us. Now get out there and serve.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Antoninus, Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. Trans. Maxwell Staniforth. New
York: Penguin Books, 1964. Print.