This post was originally published in March of this year (read it here). It’s been slightly edited to include the personal reflection that occurred since the original drafting, but the overall sentiment remains unchanged (because it’s timeless!). Why am I resharing it so soon? The service break applications at my school are due this week! Read about my spring break that started it all here and the most recent one that changed my outlook on life here!
This past spring break, I participated in a second alternative service break trip through my university. We flew out to California to work with the nonprofit GRID Alternatives to install solar panels in under-served communities as well as integrate ourselves in the culture of the San Francisco Bay area.
As I sat in my room on my first night back in North Carolina after a whirlwind of a week, I started to think back on a piece my team leader (shout-out to Kara <3 ) read to us on our service break the year before to rural Appalachia West Virginia. It discusses the difference between helping, fixing, and serving (you can read the full thing here) and it really opened my eyes to how big of an impact these three seemingly interchangeable words actually have on people.
After that time spent in individual reflection, I realized that I never truly got the message the first time I heard it almost two years ago. The service experiences were both fairly similar (with regards to what we were actually doing for a family) and both teams became my family, but I think I just needed to grow on a personal level. I needed to reach the point where I could truly think about how and what I thought. I needed time for everything to sink in and time to experience some of those same service revelations a second time. I needed to meet new people with new perspectives and grow my own worldview outside of the east coast.
Regardless of whether any of those points had any actual push in why I ran back to this message, I ran back to it. I had an epiphany ( 😉 ) one night, put off all of my homework, and read that piece over and over again. It’s so important to recognize the differences present in what we do, why we do it, and how it affects other people. You don’t have to have been on a long mission trip or anything to have a service experience to reflect back on. There are some awesome examples in many careers– two are detailed in the original reading linked above. Can you tell I really want you to go read it? Don’t worry, my TL;DR version is below 🙂
When we fix something, the general idea is based around the fact that that something (or someone) is broken. We see it as useless, worthless, and past its time. We question whether it’s even worth the energy to try and put back together. By fixing something, we are led to feel needed and powerful. We see that we have filled some void without ever giving thought as to whether that hole truly needed to be filled.
When we help people, the situation is one of inequality. It’s an uneven relationship where one party sees the other as weak and incapable of doing anything for themselves. We see ourselves as superheroes swooping in to save the day. In our inadvertent condescension, we trick ourselves into thinking we’re such great people when, in reality, our reasons for helping are extremely selfish.
When we serve others, however, we tap into what it means to be human. We don’t show off our strength or pride ourselves in using our privileges or abilities at the emotional and/or mental expense of others. We don’t focus on our own benefit of what we can write on our resume, post on social media, or feel godly about later. Serving is about connection. It’s about personal awareness, appreciation for life as a whole, and the recognition that everything and everyone is beautiful.
We will grow tired of fixing.
Helping will eventually wear us out.
Serving is a rejuvenation of spirit. It’s not just satisfaction of a “job well done,” but graciousness for a shared experience. You don’t just go through the motions of a task and you don’t solely tolerate who you’re doing that task with (or for). Instead, you base what you do around who you’re interacting with. Who you’re truly interacting with, not what you see on the surface or who society makes someone out to be. You focus on the deeper connection, the almost other-worldly bond between you. It’s a manifestation of the words of Maya Angelou:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
When we help or fix, we degrade. We knock down someone else’s self-esteem and sense of completeness of self. We convey the thought that they are insufficient, that they are nothing without us and what we’ve done for them. We do it because humans are narcissistic creatures and, in all honesty, we’re only looking out for ourselves.
Conversely, when we serve others, we share the same experiences. We share the same pain and the same joys, the same losses and the same worth. We suffer together, we work together, we cry together, and we laugh together. We have a mutual awareness of being that’s absolutely magnetic. We don’t leave someone feeling indebted to us like we do when we fix or help because, when we serve, we receive just as much healing as we give.
Serving leaves you with an immense feeling of gratitude. After both of my ASB trips, I left each community feeling completely humbled and full of takeaways from every single person we encountered. Those communities opened themselves up to us; they bared all and they were not ashamed. We saw incredible appreciation and raw generosity. We experienced communication without saying a single word. We could look into someone’s eyes and an entire sequence of understanding could pass between us in a matter of seconds.
The areas we served in both West Virginia and California were very different, but both left such a sense of wholeness, grace, and awe. Ever since I came back from the first trip to West Virginia, I am so much more aware of all of the stereotypes surrounding those people. I never realized how often we stereotype that region, but it happens in our everyday life; I hear it in everyday conversation and it’s not okay. I met those people. I lived with them, I became a part of their community, I connected with them, and I worked alongside them. They are some of the most genuine, honest, and kind people you could ever meet. We weren’t there to show any “superiority.” We weren’t there to build ourselves up. We were there for the people. We were there to learn from them and nurture that human bond.
“Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.” -Rachel Naomi Remen
Ever since this message really hit me this year, I’ve been making such a big effort in eliminating “I fixed” and “I helped” from my vocabulary. I don’t want to fix and I don’t want to help. No one needs me if I’m just in it for my own self-interest. Instead, I say “I serve.” I’m here to serve you, not to help you. We are in this world together and it’s time we act like it.
There is a judgemental connotation associated with fixing and helping that creates a noticeable distance between the parties involved. Serving can’t take place at a distance. It requires you to really get into what you’re doing. You have to throw yourself into it, you have to fully and wholeheartedly trust, believe, and love.
“We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected, that which we are willing to touch. This is Mother Teresa’s basic message. We serve life not because it is broken but because it is holy.” – source
Once you see this holiness of life, you won’t have to think about serving. It will emerge naturally from within you, leading you to take part in one of life’s greatest mysteries of human existence. Serving doesn’t strip away someone’s humanity like helping or fixing. After all, we really aren’t that different in the grand scheme of things. Service is not an outlet for expertise, but rather an outlet for the soul. It’s a larger-than-life aspect of some of the smallest things in existence.
We serve because we see the light, the life, and the wholeness of each other. We interact with it. We encourage it, strengthen it, and remember it. It’s a feeling that’s so immense it’s almost incomprehensible. It’s hard to describe but it will without a doubt change your life for the better. You understand the importance of slowing down and appreciating life, of choosing joy.
So. Instead of asking how you can help, discuss how you can serve. In adopting this minor difference in thought, you will witness a huge difference in mindset; your understanding of what it means to be human will completely blow you away.
~How have you seen the difference between fixing, helping, and serving in your own life?