In the Service of Others

“Everyone can be great…because anybody can serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”   -Martin Luther King Jr.

In keeping with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I thought I would write a tribute to what I believe his legacy stood for. He is truly a hero for his steadfast commitment to fighting for human rights, for justice, and for equality, but to fight in a way that had never been done before in the U.S., through nonviolent activism. And he continues to be an inspiration for all Americans and seekers of peace around the world.

Clearly, he was driven to serve others, to lift up those who did not have a voice or did not have the courage or ability to raise their own. And he dedicated his life to helping others. It is what I believe to be the underlying motivation for most people determined to achieve success in their endeavors- to make a difference in the lives of others- their children, their co-workers, their neighbors. I believe this is the reason why most change makers accomplish what has never been done before. They ultimately want to help others improve their lives in whatever capacity their gifts and talents allow them to.

I may be naïve. I know there are those hungry for power or fame or other self-serving reasons. We all want and deserve to experience joy and success in addition to fulfillment from helping others. But I think most who truly succeed (whether that success is on a smaller scale or a scale that impacts millions) are driven by their inherent goodness and compassion for others.

I was struck today when my young neighbor who works in my complex claimed, without hesitation, that all people suck. “Hey, I don’t suck!”, I replied. (I know…always have to take everything personally). He quickly reassured me, “No, not you, and there are some others, but for the most part, people suck. Once you accept this, you will quit being disappointed by people.” I wanted to stay and argue with him to change his mind, but a customer came in, so I quietly made my exit, giving him my most threatening ‘I will deal with you later’ look.

And I have thought about it all day. He doesn’t really believe that, does he? After all, he has always gone out of his way to help me when I needed it…which has been a lot over the past 6 months. And I don’t think it’s because it is me, I truly think he would do that for anyone because he does believe people are good and he does want to help make their day better.

I have to say, my belief to the contrary is one of the things that has gotten me through some pretty rough patches throughout my life. I can’t tell you how many times complete strangers have gone above and beyond to get me out of the many predicaments I seem to get myself into. People in every country I have traveled to have extended such kindness to help me- from spending the day taking me on a tour of their city (Siena, Italy), to driving 30 minutes out of their way to get me back to my initial destination (I sort of get turned around sometimes), to taking me into their home to get me out of the pouring rain when my bike tire went flat (Northern Ireland). This is just the strangers I have encountered. My friends have shown me love and kindness beyond what I could ever deserve in so many ways.

I know a big part of being the recipient of such kindness is because I always try to give the same. I will walk to the ends of the earth for those I love and I find myself almost on a mission to rescue every person in distress who crosses my path. I guess I exude this because I always seem to be the one people seek out to get directions (which is both comical and a hazard), or who they pick out of a crowd to sign their petition, or when on the streets and hungry, will ask for a bagel with eggs and sausage. And I love it.

The point of this little tangent is not to convince you all how kind and generous and loved I am. I guess it is just an effort to remind you that you should always ask for help. The reality is, people love to help. People love to feel like they are making a difference in someone’s life. By asking for help, you are giving them back something invaluable. You are giving them an opportunity to experience joy and fulfillment for making someone’s life better, even if it is in the smallest way.

I experienced this the other day with my nearest, dearest. I reached out to her because I felt terrible and I needed some love. When I got there, we settled into her cozy living room that has served as my temporary home, a venue for my epic going away party, and now my much-needed therapist’s office. I gave the nutshell version of the nightmare my last 6 months has been. She listened, horrified. She got tears in her eyes and just shook her head. She said she could not believe I had to go through all of this and reiterated how strong and courageous she thought I was. I needed to hear that, but this girl, my dear friend, has been through one of the worst things I could ever imagine. She went through most people’s worst nightmare and I have never seen someone handle something so terrible with so much grace and resilience. So I stopped complaining about my life and asked her to tell me every single detail about what she went through. How did it happen, how did you feel during each moment and then each after? It was a conversation that most, if any, would not broach because it is uncomfortable and sad and terrible. But I know from experience, we desperately want someone to ask those questions. Otherwise, it just festers inside and threatens to tear us apart.

And she told me. She described each moment, what the lighting looked like, the thoughts going through her head, what she said and how she felt during each moment. And she cried and I cried and we laughed and we cried some more.

I went to sleep that night the happiest I have been for months. I made one of the people I love most feel better. I helped her release just a little more pain that had been trapped inside. At least I think I did. I hope I did.

That helped me so much more than spending hours on end talking about me. She would have listened to me for hours on end, but she did something so much more meaningful. She helped me by letting me help her.

So I don’t think all people suck. I think most people are kind and compassionate and generous. Maybe not everyone. Maybe some have a hard time giving of themselves, although deep down I think they truly want to.

But for most people, the biggest gift you can give them is to let them give back to you.

I think Martin Luther King Jr. believed this, too. Yes, he gave of himself, seemingly selflessly, but he received so much more from the people he was helping- the millions of people he touched and continues to impact helped him by sharing their stories, standing behind him and giving him their passion and commitment to fight with love and peace, instead of with fear and hatred.  I have a feeling that is what motivated him to keep fighting and to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It is my hope that we too can be so inspired by and committed to helping others. And it is my hope that we too can have the courage and strength to ask and receive help from others.




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