March 2011 Archives

I recently spent time in El Salvador, building a house in the village of San Jose Villanueva. Six colleagues from Friends Academy (a Quaker school on Long Island) and I worked through the Epilogos Foundation in providing a liveable space for a family whose only source of income is selling tamales and cheese to neighbors. It was a life-changing experience, but more importantly brought home several lessons about service to others:

·        We are always better off than someone else: even when our condition in life seems to be at the bottom, there are others in greater need. Perspective is a valuable gift that can keep us from feeling "too big" or "too small" - what one psychiatrist calls the "grandiosity versus despair" continuum.

·        Giving of time and work is valuable in a different way from giving money : The opportunity to experience with body, mind, and spirit the actual living environment of those we serve is what makes actual service in person a deeper experience. We were lucky enough to be working side by side with the family who would live in the house, and the bonds that formed between us and that family are quite remarkable.

·        Service is the best antidote to depression: Carl Roger, a pioneer in client-centered psychology, was once asked what to do when one felt profoundly depressed. His answer was quite telling: pack a bag, leave your home, find someone worse off than you are, and be of service. While in El Salvador, we met with Sister Peggy O'Neill, who runs the Centro Art para la Paz (Art Center for Peace) in the town of Suchitoto and who has been in El Salvador since 1986, which was the middle of the twelve year war that ravaged the people of that country. Her commitment to service and healing through art that was forged in the midst of the horrors of war shines on her face, even as she speaks of unspeakable atrocities she witnessed.  Sister Peggy exemplifies what William James called "the religion of healthy mindedness" - the choice to be positive and life-affirming in one's actions and thoughts - and her commitment to others is a valuable model for overcoming our often self-indulgent mindset.

·        Service benefits the giver as much as the receiver: To quote Mario, the Salvadoran brother-in-law of one of my colleagues: "Thank you for coming to El Salvador and helping those who really need it. I'm sure you've changed some lives, as well as your own." This certainly changed my life.

 Doing service as a family is a valuable way to exemplify the values we wish to embody as parents and wish to see in our children: love towards others, gratitude for what we have, and an unselfish willingness to make the world a better place. We can find opportunities for service everywhere, so don't be put off by lack of funds or time. Remember Kant's categorical imperative - "Act in every situation as you would wish every other person to act" - and go out and make a difference.

 


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