For me, and I am sure for many others, community service offers an antidote to one of the characteristic maladies of the college years – not the flu or head lice, but self-absorption. By “self-absorption” I do not mean selfishness; no, self-absorption is a much more subtle ailment than that. Its symptoms include stress, an excessive preoccupation with daily tasks and worries, and a loss of perspective. It is not hard to understand why Williams students – and students at any college for that matter – can fall into the trap of self-absorption.
For most of us, these four years provide more freedom combined with fewer real responsibilities than any other time in our lives. Moreover, we attend a school that never tires of reminding us that we are the cream of the collegiate crop. Each year, the entering class is hailed as “the smartest Williams class ever,” and the accolades never stop coming. Can it be any surprise, then, that a five page paper may take on a terrifying prominence, or that a dearth of free time may become the worst tragedy on the face of the Earth?
Community service beckons us back to sanity by inviting us to look beyond ourselves. With the approach of this year’s Service Week, for which I am very grateful, I have thought a great deal about how wrapped up I have become in my own alleged “problems.” As crucial as events like Service Week are, however, I fear that they may perpetuate an impoverished view of what service is really about. We miss the point of service if we shelve it as just another set of activities instead of seeing it as a way of life, if we are focused more on doing than on being. One Saturday morning per year cannot be the extent of our involvement.
A service experience should invite us to enter into a relationship with the people we hope to serve, to reflect on what it means to give of ourselves, and as a result to incorporate an ethic of service into our everyday lives. I may visit a soup kitchen night after night, but if I am not kinder to my roommate as a result, I have missed something. Service teaches us that the gifts that got us to where we are today do not belong to us, but exist to be shared.
There are clearly needs in the larger community that active and compassionate Williams students could address. It is an oft-cited fact that Berkshire County is the poorest in Massachusetts, and I have heard this unfortunate statistic used many times as a rallying call among service-minded students. While I agree that it is important to be educated about our surroundings, I am a little uncomfortable about the use of the poverty card because I think it detracts from where our focus should be.
Community service is not a direct assault on some social phenomenon, but an encounter among human beings who have something to share with one another. As college students, we are not going to eradicate poverty in Berkshire County, but there are many other ways that we can make a truly positive impact. What we have to offer is ourselves – as good role models for children at the COTY center, as friendly company for residents at Sweetbrook nursing home, or as volunteers at the Berkshire Food Project. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, probably the best embodiment of authentic service in the twentieth century, remarked upon visiting the U.S. that it was the poorest country she had ever seen, not because of material poverty but because of a “poverty of intimacy.” Someday we may indeed be able to alleviate the first kind of poverty, but we always have the opportunity to tackle the second.
“Okay, Shawn,” you may be thinking at this point. “You’d be great on ‘Barney and Friends.’” One might reject this viewpoint as excessively idealistic, but I wonder how much of the ridicule that the service ideal inspires exists because it is so exceptionally hard to live up to. I was poignantly reminded of that difficulty at a nursing home in Vanceburg, Kentucky. during the Newman Association’s Spring Break trip.
While visiting with residents, I met a beautiful elderly woman who had suffered from an expressive aphasia, a stroke that left her in full possession of her mental faculties but unable to speak. With that channel of communication closed, I was confronted with the uncomfortable situation of having absolutely nothing to offer but myself. I instinctively knew that the time I spent in her presence would say much more about me than anything that I can put on a resume, and I found myself painfully aware of my own limitations. Nothing that I have learned or done at Williams prepared me for such a deceptively simple encounter. I realized that I had become so steeped in a mindset of “doing” that it was difficult for me to just be there for her.
This is the tremendous challenge that service offers us – to step outside our fortresses of tasks and accomplishments, to offer ourselves to other people, and to be transformed in the process. Service is not a collection of impersonal activities, nor is it a pleasant distraction from our day-to-day lives. It is an invitation to become more fully human.