April 2018

Friday, November 18, 2016

Fixing, Helping, Serving and...

Helping, Fixing, Serving, and…

Last week, a young woman who works at the Assisted Living Facility where I lead a poetry group, told me about an article by Rachel Naomi Remen called “Helping, Fixing, or Serving” and I've been thinking a lot about it. The article's premise is that Fixing and Helping are functions of the ego whereas Serving is work of the soul. It's only three pages if you want to read it:

I worked in schools for 27 years and always thought of my work as service. When I drafted an application to the University of Washington's School of Social Work four and a half years ago, I used the word "serving" to describe my work "serving students and families living in poverty, many of them refugees from other parts of the world." Every time I used the word "serving," my friend Ellen, who gave me feedback and suggestions, inserted a question mark. I changed “serving” to “teaching.”

The article made me feel good about myself. I was in the habit of serving, but something about it has been gnawing at me. As I think about the article now, I think there's more than service. I think this next step may not be so much about working as about being. Maybe the next step in the soul is in being with. 

The thought brings to mind Albert Camus' oft-quoted words: "Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend" (though I'm pretty sure he said it in French.)

Maybe this explains Trump’s election, an election that baffles those of us on the left who cherish helping and serving (not so much fixing, I don’t think, but maybe I’m wrong.) Maybe those who elected him did so not because they thought he would help, serve, (or fix) them, but because they sought someone who would walk beside them.

Our minister had an informal potluck for church members who wanted to connect after the election. Many in the group had lots of ideas about what to do next. I’m sure there will need to be a lot of doing, but for that moment (and this one), I needed to stop first and just recognize the reality that I have been missing: too many people in our country have not seen themselves mirrored in the federal government: they have not seen people who understand their lives and will walk beside them.

During the discussion, I kept thinking about the mantra of so many conservative Christian teenagers about ten years ago: WWJD? “What would Jesus do?” they asked. I’m asking that now.

I can’t figure the answer, but I do remember that one of the names for Jesus is “Emmanuel,” which in Hebrew means “God with us.”

Maybe God understands that we crave someone walking with us, and maybe that’s something we need to understand about ourselves.

I’ve learned this lesson before. Perhaps I learned it first in a health project in Michoacan, Mexico, in my twenties where other Americans and I dug latrines but the real meaning was in the connections with people from another culture. I learned it again in Guarjila, El Salvador, where Salvadoran friends thanked us for being with them and told the story of an American who was with them for a time in Honduran refugee camps. Because she was always working and never stopped to laugh with them, they knew she would only be there for a short time. And again I learned it in SeaTac, Washington, where I tried to walk with students even as I taught them reading and writing. Indeed, walking with them might have made the teaching possible.

One of my favorite moments at that school did not occur at the school: it occurred on a march down Seattle’s streets as I shouted for immigrant justice. A student who marched ahead of me and who would soon disappear from my world looked surprised to see me, waved his hand for me to join him, and put his arm around me, inviting me to walk with him. Come to think of it, his name was Jesus (pronounced “Hey Seus” in Spanish).

Don’t get me wrong: bigotry and discrimination are not ever okay. But I wonder what I need to be listening to right now.

For now, I’m replaying words from Pablo Neruda’s poem “Keeping Quiet” (originally in Spanish—here are two stanzas translated by Alastair Reed):

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

The last stanza reminds me of a sign in front of an ocotillo in the desert Southwest: “Dead or Alive?” Though the ocotillo looked at the time like dead sticks in the sand, I later saw that with a bit of water those sticks would flourish with a gazillion little green leaves and a bright red flash at the end of each stick. What looked dead was in fact alive.

So perhaps there will be a resurrection, a return to living, if I can learn to be silent and listen: not silent about injustice, but silent in order to listen.

How will I know when to be silent and when to speak, when to act? I just don’t know. As my Irish taxi cab driver said to me years ago: “Aye. There’s a conundrum.”

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