“Service is the rent we pay for living.” ~ Marian Wright Edelman
I truly believe this. And I also believe—from the bottom of my heart—that when we serve others, our own problems, angst and issues become far less important than we would otherwise think them to be.
At 24, I was the single parent of a three-year-old, and a full-time college student. I worked part-time in a slogan button shop, making anti-Vietnam War and other protest and political buttons.
I didn’t have a car and had to put my daughter on the back of my bicycle to take her to the baby sitter, and then I’d ride the bus to school. There were even times when I didn’t have a baby sitter and had to take her to class with me. Money was tight.
It was summer of 1972, and the streets and sidewalks of the poor, working class Berkeley neighborhood where I lived abounded with children who had nothing to do except play in the streets.
There were no summer camps or vacations for these children. Their parents worked all day, and in many instances, it was the older kids looking after the younger ones as well as neighbor children.
That was the summer I started a neighborhood girls club. I gathered all the girls of any age and began to plan summer activities, such as trips to the beach and boardwalk in Santa Cruz, the San Francisco Zoo, horseback riding, the children’s museum and Golden Gate Park.
None of their parents had money for these excursions, so we raised the money through cookie sales, fried chicken dinner sales and backyard picnics. Then I enlisted my friends with cars to act as chaperones and chauffeurs.
It was one of the most joyous summers of my life. We had pajama parties at my house. We baked cookies and fried chicken to sell in the neighborhood, and kids who had never even seen a real horse, got to ride one. Children who had never been to the beach or a museum got to go.
All of my own angst about being the single parent of a child with a deadbeat dad—being poor and trying to beat the odds to get a college education—vanished in the light of the happiness these neighborhood children experienced.
That summer formed the foundation of how I have tried to live my life and how I’ve raised my daughter. No matter how difficult life is for us, I taught her, there is always someone for whom life is even more challenging, and to whom we can be of service.
Too often we get caught up in narcissism of our own making. We worry excessively about our own happiness, without understanding that bringing joy to others can enhance our happiness. We fret over our own lack of financial success or freedom, without remembering that over two billion people on this planet live on two dollars a day or less.
The Dalai Lama says, “You have to start giving first and expect absolutely nothing.”
Proverbs 11:25, says, “Those who refresh others will himself be refreshed.”
Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is in the service of others.”
Abraham Lincoln is well known to have suffered from “melancholy,” the 19th century word for depression. According to Dr. Stephen Post in his talk, “The Power of Giving,” President Lincoln was known to periodically leave the White House and go down to Union Station and assist weary travelers with their heavy bags. One of his most well known quotes is: “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That is my religion.”
As a parent, my greatest gift to my daughter was to instill in her, a belief in the power of serving others. For her 21st birthday I gave her a copy of Marian Wright Edelman’s (Founder of The Children’s Defense Fund) book, The Measure of Our Success: A letter to My Children and Yours, from which the quote above comes. That book and that quote have guided her life since.
In 2010, my daughter’s own book, If It Takes a Village, Build One: How I Found Meaning Through a Life of Service and How You Can Too, was published. The first sentence of the book reads: “As far back as I can remember, I have been engaged in some kind of service, activism or volunteer activity—and that, without a doubt, is thanks to my mother, Gayle Fleming.” You can surely imagine the pride (and validation) I felt.
Very few lives (if any) are lived without trials and tribulation. We all suffer. Life is impermanent and imperfect. The Dalai Lama also says, “Too much self-centered attitude brings isolation. Result—loneliness, fear, anger. The extreme self-centered attitude is the source of suffering.”
But we can all serve others. We can all put someone else’s needs before our own. If this wasn’t taught to us, then we must teach it to ourselves.
Author: Gayle Fleming
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Photo: Flickr/Sukanto Debnath