Serve Someone Else, Serve Yourself
When I was writing my book, “Memoirs of a Ghost,” I devoted
a chapter to my volunteer work at an AIDS hospice, something that changed my life. It was the late 1980’s when testing positive for HIV was a death sentence. I lost a lot of friends. I also made some new ones. I attended a death and dying workshop and I met a man in his early thirties named Ken. He was reclining on the floor next to me, he had dark patches on his skin, he was rail thin, and I felt drawn to him. “I’m moving to Chris Brownlie AIDS hospice tomorrow,” he asked me. “Will you come visit me?”
“Yes, of course,” I said. But as I stood at the front door two days later, I was paralyzed with fear. 26 beds, 26 dying men. I had signed up to volunteer but what on earth did I have to offer? Was it even safe to be there? We knew very little about the virus at that point. The medical community had reported that you contracted AIDS by sharing bodily fluids like blood or semen with someone who was infected. But how could I be sure? What if it was transmitted by touch? Or breathing the same air?
I might have stood there all day if a nurse hadn’t stepped in front of me, opened the door, gestured to me and he and I walked in together. I immediately got busy. I checked in and I started by visiting Ken who was really happy to see me. Then I walked from room to room, holding
hands, carrying lunch trays and fluffing pillows. Somehow I knew exactly what to do. It felt like I was moving around in an altered state with a lot of clarity, no fear or confusion, and I did very little talking. Mostly I listened.
After eight hours, when I got back in my car and got on the road, I felt sad but I also felt enlivened and renewed as I realized something that has stayed with me for my entire life. You don’t deserve to get a medal for service. The doing is the reward. When you expect adoration and
complements for being there for someone, you become full of yourself. When you don’t expect anything for being there for someone, you become full of love and satisfaction. You get a whole lot more than you ever imagined.
A friend asked me if it was depressing to spend time with dying people. “Not at all,” I said. “I get tired but the atmosphere is so charged with life, I stay in the moment and there’s a lot I can do. I get to leave my baggage at the door, that’s a relief, and I feel inspired by these
extraordinary, vulnerable people who are facing illness and death with so much courage.”
I think that being of service is a largely misunderstood notion. First you need to know who you’re serving. Yourself or someone else? It matters because service is like a boomerang. When you toss it out with spiritual arrogance, (look how good I am and how much I’m doing for you), it flies back and hits you in the face. When you toss it out with
humility and no expectations (I see that you’re in pain. What can I do to
help?), it soars directly to your heart and fills you up with love. While
you’re helping someone else, you’re also helping yourself.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.
There was a man named Jerry in the hospice, a “resident” as they were called, who had AIDS and cancer. That equaled a lot of pain. Still, he invited me to sit down and he told me what made a good volunteer. What worked and what didn’t. I listened carefully. For him, it was
about being heard. For me, it was an education in how to be with dying people. I paid attention to Jerry and I learned what felt good to them, like showing respect by asking if you could come into their room. Not talking about dying unless they brought it up. Not telling them what to do. Not pressing your opinions on anyone. Saying what you mean and meaning what you say because your words may be the last ones they ever hear.
When Jerry asked me to light his cigarette a few minutes later, I hesitated for a moment. Wasn’t it bad for him? But I set my opinion aside and clicked the lighter without any further hesitation. I had heard what he said about not telling anyone what to do. He had a short time to live so why would it matter if he had a cigarette?
Alcoholics Anonymous refers to service as work carried out for no financial reward or compensation. “You have to give it away,” they say, “in order to keep it.” In my experience, serving others gives my life purpose, hope and fulfillment. It chases away loneliness and guilt. I’m
not suggesting you don’t take care of yourself first. And I’m not suggesting that you have to do anything large or heroic. The wonder of it all is that when you do small things that make someone feel a little bit better, they become great things. It’s a great gift to show someone they’re not alone. It’s a great gift to tell someone you love them. To feed someone. To ask them what they need. Andabove all else, to be quiet and attentive and just listen.