“In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers
of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved.”
Part of me wants to believe I have some exceptional quality that entitles me to the lavish life I enjoy. It’s easier to believe that I somehow earned the right to my luxuries than to accept that a mere trick of fate landed me in this life rather than dumping me in a gutter in an underdeveloped nation. As this idea has worked its way into my mind, I’ve come to realize that there are many people who could do much more with the life I’ve been given than I can. I’ve also decided that with all I’ve been given comes the responsibility to make a contribution to the world, not by living a life of privilege aspiring to accolades, but by helping others reach their unearthed potential.
And still, it’s never become easy to give up what I have in order to help others. It’s amazing how quickly a sense of entitlement can sneak into my life. Though I don’t deserve my new shoes more than a starving child in rural China, and while I certainly need them less, I still want them. It’s always difficult to let go of things I want; things that, when I stop to consider them, don’t make me a happier or a better person. I plod along trying constantly to remind myself that giving is more important than having.
I know I’m .0000000001 percent of the population of this planet. I can’t go to India for a week and bring about any change. I could spend my life working in India and not cause change. The people who can actually change the way the world works, change the way people live, change the way people are treated, are few and far between, but I feel very strongly that that does not mean the rest of us should stop trying.
I suppose we try because on a basic, spiritual level we understand that loving others changes us. It’s impossible to serve someone and dislike them; the act of service creates love. This I know and believe with all my heart because I’ve learned it from a few experiences.
The first experience was attending the Birch Creek Ranch (three times). BCR is based on the philosophy of Lowell Bennion and includes four hours of service every morning ranging from bucking hay bales to cleaning a woman’s house to helping a local farmer move his sprinkler pipes to spreading gravel and digging out rocks for a new parking lot. I certainly didn’t change anything besides myself because of that service, but the inner-change was monumental.
BCR has a motto, which is a quote from Lowell Bennion. The part that means the most to me reads, “learn to like people, even though some of them may be different... different from you”. I can’t honestly say that I initially liked everyone at BCR, but as I worked with the girls I grew to love them, even the ones that at first seemed unlovable. As we worked towards common goals each morning, their flaws and differences seemed unimportant compared to the goodness inside, which became more apparent the longer we worked. By the end of my time at the ranch, it felt like anything that could be accomplished by only one person was not worth doing. It took a whole team, each with their unique contribution to bring a little bit of good into the world.
My other favorite part of the motto is “learn to like work and enjoy the satisfaction of doing your job as well as it can be done.” At the ranch, I learned the value of doing difficult things. One experience particularly stands out. Though I’ve had horses all my life, I’d never bucked a bale of hay until I got to BCR. Moving seventy-pound bales of hay is a daunting task. With some encouragement from amazing counselors, I lifted the first bale. It was enormously heavy, but I moved it into the pile. Then I moved the second one. And then I moved the third one. The four hours passed extremely slowly, but at the end of them, I had a large pile of hay and one of the highest sensations of self-confidence I’ve ever felt. I can do hard things, and I learn the most when working at a task for which it feels I’m doomed to failure.
The other experience that has taught me about the love that comes from service is not so much an experience, as a person. Lucy moved to Draper from Brazil in February and since March I’ve been teaching her English. I’m not dedicating a huge amount of time to her; I only come twice a week for one hour. I’m not an exceptional teacher; her husband is American and could probably teach her as well as I could. Yet, I have made a difference. Lucy can do small things like order at a restaurant and use the correct preposition because I’ve dedicated a small amount of my time to her.
However, the fact that Lucy can introduce herself in English is not nearly as important to me as the relationship we’ve formed. I love Lucy. She’s one of the most genuine, heart-on-her-sleeve, gentle people I’ve ever met. At the end of a lesson back in May, she said to me, “Hannah, you teach me English very good. We best friends.” That meant more to me than the hundreds of blanks she’s filled in with the right word.
So no, I haven’t changed the world by teaching Lucy English twice a week. I haven’t really contributed to the net good in the world. There are just as many women in forced prostitution now as when I started helping Lucy. But I have made a difference to Lucy. It’s not a monumental difference, but I know I will leave her better off than I found her. That’s what service is about; helping someone get to a better place, even if they only move a step.
The final experience I had was going on a food run with the Adopt-A-Native-Elder program last month. I got down to the reservation with absolutely no idea what to expect. Admittedly, I hadn’t done my homework. I’d heard about the extreme poverty “down there”, but I’d been hearing about extreme poverty for a very long time. I’d driven through hours and hours of shantytowns in Tanzania, and while it broke my heart, the “poverty lesson” didn’t begin to sink in until I met the people of the Navajo Mountain reservation.
We arrived at the center and immediately began unpacking the program’s “giveaways”. I was expecting minor luxuries, but instead found myself handling things necessary for life: dish soap, trash bags, winter clothing, laundry detergent, batteries, things that have been in my house since the day I was born. The elders excitement at receiving such simple gifts made me promise myself I would more intensely appreciate all that I had waiting for me at home.
I was not deeply moved, however, until an 86-year old woman came up to my friend and I (the only teenagers in the group). She didn’t speak English, but she showed us two handmade necklaces. She put one around each of our necks, like medals of honor, shook our hands, and sat back down. This woman, who had no running water or electricity or education, who had been born into poor circumstances, who was, to say the least, living a lower standard of living than I, had chosen to give me a gift; and I, I who live in a world of luxury, had no comparable sacrifice to offer her save my deeply humbled gratitude.
While all this is important, and these experiences have been meaningful to me, the most resonating lesson I’ve learned is that when serving, the roles of giver and receiver are interchangeable; every person I’ve ever “served” has given me more than I could ever have given them. The beauty of human relationships is that the give and take flow so freely, one can’t help another without receiving more in return. I would appreciate the opportunity to serve the people of Calcutta, but more poignantly, I would love the opportunity to learn from them.
You'd accept me, right?