The Power of Service

The other day I received a spate of emails from Singapore and Malaysia. Apparently my story of taking the dying woman to the hospice (in Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace) has been published in an article or on a website somewhere in Southeast Asia.

The response, as is always the case in regard to this story, has been overwhelmingly warm and appreciative. There are certain anecdotes that have proven over the years to have the capacity to touch people’s hearts.

What I find interesting is that the stories that matter most to people are almost always the stories where someone is weak or in need of help — either me, as the narrator, or the person I encounter. This is worth considering.

There appears to be a whole world of people who find their meaning through service more than through personal achievement. This heartens me greatly, because the power of service seems to be losing its hold on the modern heart and imagination.

I can think of no value more needed in modern society than a belief in service to others. It is love made manifest, and virtue softly spoken.

We so easily close in on ourselves if we are not careful. Our days are full, our schedules tight. Just getting by is work enough. Yesterday the axle on my wife’s car went out, our heating system blew at 3 a.m., a doctor’s bill got turned down by insurance, and an entire wall of shelving broke and crashed to the floor in our closet. None of these is anything consequential in the larger scheme of things, but each is totally consuming in the nitpicking world of the everyday, and each taxes the emotions, the schedule, and the pocketbook.

If I’m not careful, my entire day will get swallowed up in the minutiae of such occurrences and the emotions they engender. Especially at this time of year I need to find a small gesture each day that reminds me of my place in the human family, not just in the machinery of contemporary society.

We all need to do this. You’ll know your opportunity when it presents itself, just as I’ll know mine. We just have to make sure that we stop the machine at that moment and embrace the chance we are given to express goodness and caring.

We should relish such moments when they present themselves, for there is no better way to stay grounded spiritually than to consciously perform a compassionate act every day — a “thank you” to someone who is never thanked, a visit to someone who is seldom visited, anger withheld where anger is called forth. Such gestures, whether noticed or not, turn us back onto our better selves because they force us to be present to our own best motives and aspirations.

There is nothing profound about this observation; it is simply a reminder of what we all know: car axles and medical bills are important, but they are not essential. What is essential is the human touch that we are able to share with our fellow travelers in our passage through life.

So join me today and perform some small act of service. The axle will get fixed, the heating system will get repaired, the bill will get paid, and the shelf will get replaced. In each instance there will be some measure of cursing, wailing, checking of account balances, and gnashing of teeth. But in the end, all will get resolved.

What I have to remember — what we all have to remember — is that problems end, but kindness carries forward. It spreads and grows and fills in the spaces around the hard-edged occurrences of the day.

Ultimately it is this simple: the person to whom I am kind — the person I serve — has his or her bad axle, unfair medical bill, broken heating system, or damaged shelf, too. And he or she may have a lot worse. My small act of service or kindness may be the best moment in that person’s day.

Such a possibility is good enough in our ordinary lives.

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