Since my words still elude me, I thought I’d share something I wrote a year ago today. It still holds true…and I seem to need the reminder myself of late.
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’d write a tribute to what I believe his legacy stood for- his steadfast commitment to fighting for human rights, justice, and equality through nonviolent activism on a scale that had never been done before in the U.S. He was driven to serve others, to lift up those who didn’t have the courage or capacity to raise their voices.
I believe this to be the underlying motivation for most people who achieve success in their endeavors: to make a difference in the lives of others- whether that be their children, co-workers, neighbors, or complete strangers. I think this is why most change-makers accomplish what has never been done before. They ultimately want to help improve the lives of others in whatever capacity their gifts and talents allow them to.
This might sound naïve. I know there are those hungry for power or fame or other self-serving purposes. We all deserve to experience joy and success in addition to fulfillment from helping others. But I think most who achieve success (whether that success is on a smaller scale or one that impacts millions) are driven by their inherent goodness and compassion for others.
I was struck today when my young friend who works in my complex declared, without hesitation, that all people suck. “I don’t suck!”, I reminded him. “No, not you, and there are a few 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 try to change his mind, but a customer came in, so I quietly made my exit, shooting him an ‘I’ll deal with you later‘ look.
I’ve thought about our conversation all day. I don’t think he really believes that. 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’s me. I think he would do that for anyone precisely because he does believe people are good, and he does want to make their day better.
I’ve been the recipient of random kindness from complete strangers more times than I can remember. People in every country I’ve traveled to have helped me out of various predicaments I’ve gotten myself into- from spending the day showing me the highlights of their city (Siena, Italy), to driving out of their way to get me where I need to go (I have a tendency to get turned around at times), to fixing me a warm meal and giving me a place to stay when I got stranded in the pouring rain on a bike trek. (Northern Ireland).
I know a big part of being the recipient of such kindness is because I do my best to extend the same when I can, which seems to be apparent. I’m usually the random person people select out of a crowd when they’re in need of directions (which is both comical and hazardous) or want someone to sign their petition or are hungry or need someone to catch them as they stumble down the stairs. And it makes me happy to help.
The point of this is just an effort to remind you (and myself) to ask for help. Most people really do love the opportunity to help someone, to feel like they are making a difference in someone’s life. When we ask for help, we are giving those who are helping us something invaluable. We’re giving them an opportunity to experience the joy and fulfillment of making someone’s day better, even if it’s in the smallest way.
I recently experienced this with one of my closest friends. She invited me over because she knew I needed a friend in the worst way. We settled into her couch, and I gave her the nutshell version of the nightmare I had been going through. She got tears in her eyes and told me how strong and courageous she thought I was.
Yes, I needed to hear that, but it made me stop talking. This girl had been through most people’s worst nightmare, and she had handled it with such grace and resilience.
She’s one of the most upbeat, positive people I know and doesn’t talk about things that might make people sad. I knew she hadn’t talked about what happened to her as much as she needed to, so I asked her to tell me about it.
She took me through that day, described what the lighting looked like when she found him, the thoughts that went through her head, what she said out loud, what she did immediately after. And she cried and I cried and we laughed and cried some more.
It was a conversation that most of her friends most likely had avoided because it is uncomfortable and sad and terrible. But I know from experience, we desperately want and need someone to ask those questions. Otherwise, the pain just festers inside and continues to haunt us.
I went to sleep that night feeling the closest to happy I’d felt for months. I helped one of the people I love most release a little bit more of her pain. At least I hope I did. She unknowingly gave me something more valuable than a shoulder to cry on. She gave me the gift of letting me help her.
So no, I don’t think all people suck. I think most are kind and compassionate and generous. Maybe some have difficulty giving of themselves, but deep down, I think most truly do want to.
I think Martin Luther King Jr. believed this, too. I think he believed in the inherent good in people. That’s why he had the impact he did; he made people want to give back, to take action to make the world a more peaceful place.
Yes, he showed us the power of serving others, of giving people who feel powerless a voice and hope and a way to fight for what they deserve with love and peace, instead of with fear and hatred.
But he also empowered people in the most effective way we can; he gave them the opportunity to make a contribution, to make a difference in their own lives and the lives of others.
This, the capacity to help others- to love and serve- and the courage to ask others for help- to receive and express gratitude- this is humanity at its best. This is why we’re here.