January 9, 2019

The Value of Doing Something

Photo Source: http://www.schweitzerfellowship.org/
How many times have you heard someone say, "I need to take time off to go 'find myself'?"   

Awhile back, I posted this great quote attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

"It is through activity that a man most easily gives an account of himself. To the question of how a man can best learn to understand himself, try to do your duty and at once you will know what kind of man you are."

Goethe suggests that you only truly "find" yourself by doing what you should be doing anyway; and that only by continuing to ply your trade, raise your family, and care for those around you, the realization of the purpose of your life will be understood. 

One of my all-time favorite individuals, Albert Schweitzer, whose life I have read about extensively, was a devoted follower of Goethe. In fact, the only trip Schweitzer ever made to the US was in 1949, to speak at a festival in Aspen, CO celebrating the bicentennial of Goethe's birth.  Schweitzer's life, just as Goethe suggested, focused on actively serving those with whom he came in contact, and thereby fully understanding who he was and the purpose of his own life in the process.

Action is always preferred over waiting to see who else steps in to resolve a situation.  When facing the reality of someone in need, many of us frequently choose to offer the convenient, but hollow phrase, "let me know if I can do anything to help."  For years I recall watching friends and family members who needed help be placated by neighbors and even fellow church congregants with a quick, "let me know if I can help." Little help ever came, even when ultimately requested.  

And it gets worse.  I heard one particularly calloused lay clergyperson at a church I once attended decline to help someone and "pass the buck" (so-to-speak) by suggesting that the individual (facing life-threatening illness and a resulting financial burden) go seek community or familial resources instead of being provided help from a church program supposedly designed to help just such people.  I don't think I'll ever forget hearing those words.  It was a stunning realization that the speaker was not really there for the parish flock and had no interest in fulfilling their duty. 

To be fair, I'm sure I'm as guilty as anyone of telling someone, "Hey, let me know what I can do to help," at some point.  It's an easy way to feel like you're doing something without making a real commitment.  I now realize, however, that saying "Let me know..." means that I'm putting the responsibility for requesting help back on the individual in need, rather than taking it upon myself to actively provide assistance.

Which brings me to a recent experience I wish to share.  I won't divulge any specifics here, to preserve the anonymity the subjects of this story would prefer, but during Christmas Eve services at my family's new church last year, I heard the wail of sirens outside.  When the service ended, I left the parking lot.  It was immediately obvious that there had been a significant fire-related event at an apartment complex directly across the street.  

There were numerous pieces of fire equipment from our local firehouse and neighboring counties on site, as well as police who had cordoned off a section of the complex with yellow tape.  Whatever had happened, it did not look good; but, assuming there was little to be done to help other than get in the way, I continued home.  Through social media, I was saddened to hear that someone had died in a fire that day.  

But that wasn't the end of the story.

I heard a few days after the event that, as I was heading home from church to celebrate Christmas, a small group of fellow church members and representatives of the pastoral staff had gone directly across the street to the scene of the fire.  They immediately sprang into action by finding the families displaced by the fire, consoling the victims, and providing clothing, offers of shelter, food and whatever other help they could determine was needed.  Some even left and purchased gifts for the displaced children, so that they also could enjoy a holiday in spite of their somewhat dire situation.

Their response was immediate.  They didn't stand back to watch or extend insincere offers of help. Rather, they took action to benefit these people who were strangers to them.  They helped resolve the problem and (perhaps most importantly) demonstrated exactly how you would expect individuals who profess to follow teachings of love and charity to others would act.  In fact, they didn't stop until there was virtually nothing left to do that day; and I've heard the help continues even now.

The Bible includes a very worthwhile parable called "The Good Samaritan."  Whether Christian or not, we can all learn an important lesson from the universal story of the stranger who selflessly assists a stricken stranger.  Watching that story unfold in person, right across the street from the church I now attend, was stunning and heartwarming.

More than anyone, I think, my wife has taught me the value of doing something.  As busy as she is with a job and a family at home, she's one of those that will jump in and volunteer her time and resources, even without an invitation to do so.  In the last month alone, she's organized a major fundraiser for our daughter's dance school, anonymously purchased and delivered a wonderful "Christmas" for a young teenager in need, and packed a box of a dozen new blankets for a dog rescue. Last year at this time, she spent the better part of the winter organizing rides to work and finding housing for another family in need.  She never stops watching for ways to serve.

I know she'd be embarrassed for anyone to acknowledge the effort because she does it, not for herself, but because she genuinely wishes to fill a need. It's who she is. She's always been that way.  I have not.  But by her example and through her leadership, she pulls people like me along to help with these activities and learn the incredible value in serving others. I think she, more than anyone I know, lives Goethe's motto:

"Try to do your duty and at once you will know what kind of person you are."

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