FRONT PORCH: The power of empathy and service to others

“SERVICE is what prayer looks like when it gets up off its knees and walks around the world.” – Fr Michael Graham, SJ.

Some years ago, a group of senior students from a tony high school went on a community service project to a church that had a well-established meal programme for homeless individuals and families.

The students, from comfortable and highly privileged middle class and wealthy families, were somewhat nervous that they would be serving meals to homeless children and families who were beset by an encyclopedia of social and mental problems, and who were, seemingly, a world away from the daily and life experience of the high schoolers.

When the students arrived at the church they were in for a holy surprise and the unexpected incarnation of a new spirit.

Instead of helping to feed the hungry and homeless clients at the shelter, the students were asked to join the line along with those who were being served lunch. In pairs, the students were asked to sit with the others being served, who were not coiffed, deodorised or designer-branded as were the community service participants.

Those who came to serve were suddenly recipients of service. They were not able to hide behind the superior position of ladling soup or dishing food for others. They had to engage the clients of the centre in conversation over a simple meal.

Clearly, the students could not truly understand the mental illness, post-traumatic stress from war, addiction, domestic abuse, alcoholism, misfortune and other experiences of homelessness and poverty of those who had to every day, often three times a day, wait on a line in order to eat.

After the service project the young people would soon return to their suburban comfort and choice of just about anything they wanted to eat at any time of the day.

But that day, for the first time, for a number of the students, there were the first glimmers of empathy and understanding for homeless and hungry people they had only seen on television or at a distance on the streets.

For what was only a glimmer, they briefly left “the comfort of their own perceived place in the world and inhabit[ed] the experience of someone” else.

In so doing, they enjoyed just the beginning or the “faint or wavering light” of their own vulnerability, and possibly a sense that they might at some point in life experience the very same vulnerabilities of the homeless men and women with whom they shared a meal and conversation.

One of the students had just broken up with his girlfriend. He was bemoaning the loss of a first love. The conversation at lunch with the homeless veteran with whom he shared lunch was about girlfriends and the loss of love.

Whether homeless, or privileged to live in a nice home, there is no human distinction or divide when it comes to heartbreak, loss, loneliness, the betrayal of a friendship and other fractures of relationships.

The student marveled that instead of “feeding the homeless”, for which he could morally pat himself on the back and brag about to his peers; he was instead the recipient of kindness, understanding and the gift of empathy from someone he came to serve.

Service and empathy are infused and pregnant with paradox, ultimate surprise, the shattering of our pretensions and privileges, akin to one of the master paradoxes of Christian spirituality: “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” (Luke 17:33).

Through self-donation and service of others we are transformed and gather the threads and moral energy for conversion – and joy!

Our myriad anxieties, avoidance of pain, fears, insecurities, disappointment, loss of loved ones, hopelessness, boredom, tedium, fear of disease and death, discontent and other ailments of the spirit can never be tamed by materialism and other distractions.

By losing and finding ourselves in the service of something grander than our own needs or pampered comfort is one of the only genuine paths for true joy, which is not the same as the temporary satisfaction that accompanies endless material acquisition.

Author and minister, Wayne Miller, offers: “As we serve others we are working on ourselves; every act, every word, every gesture of genuine compassion naturally nourishes our own hearts as well. It is not a question of who is healed first.

“When we attend to ourselves with compassion and mercy, more healing is made available for others. And when we serve others with an open and generous heart, great healing comes to us.”

A young nerdish student, who was not among the popular set on the school social circuit or one of the celebrated athletes or one of the so-called smart kids, bumbled along in high school, somewhat socially isolated and awkward.

He was a C-student who struggled academically. He failed to complete his first community service programme and probably drank a little too much and smoked too much weed on the weekends.

The summer before his last year in high school, he signed up to be a volunteer at a Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) camp for kids in order to meet his community service requirement.

“Volunteers work with campers, providing around-the-clock care and attention. Counselors push wheelchairs, meet the daily needs of each child and become a youngster’s friend for a week.”

Over the course of a holy week, the student emerged from the cocoon of certain weaknesses and vulnerabilities, transformed into one of the better volunteers the MDA Camp saw that year. He found new and unexpected life and joy.

His supervisor marvelled at how this shy and awkward young man came to love and was loved in return by the disabled young boy, of whom the former became his companion, friend and helper around-the-clock during a summer of transformation for both of them.

Even after the student had finished his community service requirement he returned to help and to serve because, to paraphrase his joy, he was compelled to do so.

As other students were called to receive their academic awards at graduation that year, he was given the school’s Community Service award, to the delight and surprise of his parents and peers, and to his own great surprise.

We serve and are transformed not only from our strengths but as often from the depth and struggle of our vulnerabilities. The Sufi mystic and poet Rumi instructs: “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

Our wounds can destroy. If healed they can make us stronger. Some who have experienced physical abuse become more empathetic. But, some turn into abusers. Some victims of abuse describe how working with others who were abused helped them cope with their own pain and struggle.

We all struggle with our clever demons and falsehoods. But it is remarkable how genuine empathy and service of others beyond our weaknesses can help us to lose ourselves and discover new life and spiritual and emotional resources which can help to tame our demons and arrest our conceits.

At a mass in Havana, Cuba, in 2015, Pope Francis urged: “This caring for others out of love is not about being servile. Rather, it means putting the question of our brothers and sisters at the centre. Service always looks to their faces, touches their flesh, senses their closeness and even, in some cases, ‘suffers’ that closeness and tries to help them.

“Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.”

During this Lent, as throughout the year, there will be numerous opportunities to serve others in ways big and small. Service is a source of liberation, conversion, and communion. The opportunities for service appear in myriad forms.

In such acts and words of service cum communion, we are liberated from our self-absorption, while potentially liberating others in need of our material, spiritual and human gifts, and empathy.


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