Thursday, June 01, 2006


A framed poster of Marian Wright Edelman hangs in the hallway of our clinic alongside numerous similar posters of people of color who have changed the world. The quote on Ms. Edelman's poster stopped me in my tracks the other day:

"Service is the very purpose of life. It is the rent we pay for living on this planet."

Among many accomplishments, Ms. Edelman established the Children’s Defense Fund, "the most powerful voice ever created for the millions of poor children in the United States" (according to the National Women's History Project).

It seems that my life has become centered around the service of others, either through nursing, teaching, or various volunteer projects in which I've taken part. While it may be possible to lose one's way by ignoring one's own growth and needs in the interest of altruistic service, I've found that one can often find one's self through the medium of service. When I look at those who have endeavored to devote themselves to the welfare of others: Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi, I don't see egoless waifs whose personalities were lost in the wake of their call to serve. What I see are dynamic individuals who brought their visions to fruition and silmultaneously achieved self-actualization and ersatz sainthood.

Ayn Rand professed that true altruism could not exist, because every human act---whether for the benefit of one person or a multitude---is essentially a selfish act, even when couched in altruistic desires. She felt that even the most seemingly selfless person gains from their actions in some way (if only by increased self-esteem), thus making selflessness essentially impossible.

We all might experience a feeling of accomplishment or well-being for a deed well done. Does this diminish our altruism? Does it demean our desire to serve? Does the benefit to one's ego preclude the benefit felt by the recipient of our largesse? I would say no to all three rhetorical questions, and will continue on my path of service and good will for as long as that path is aligned with my soul. Whether altruism is absolute seems to me to be beside the point. Any amount of ego boosting would seem a small price to pay if a small corner of the world is uplifted or bettered by one's actions on the ground.

Service with a smile? As often as possible. To paraphrase that ubiquitous McDonalds sign in front of that fast-food monolith of capitalism: "Billions and Billions Served".
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