I’ve always had a conflicted relationship with activism. I look at the divestment campaign and see a bunch of bitter, narrow-minded people trying to stick it to Israel, thinking this will help Palestine. I saw the people who did a one-day fast for Darfur, thinking this will help. Did they think about Darfur the next day? Two days after? Three? Will they ever be involved again?
For me, this is not service. Service is committing yourself to principles and habits that, in the long term, will positively affect the people you’re servicing. It is not jumping onto the bandwagon of popular causes. It is not angrily shouting about how the world is unfair, pretending you know how the world works. Wearing a Palestinian keffiyah doesn’t make you a humanitarian any more than running a stop sign on your bike makes you an anarchist.
Personally, I’ve been trying to do three things every day that I believe will foster service.
The first is one may surprise people. I pray before every meal. I pray to remember that there are billions of people in the world who will not be sitting down at a meal. The activists I’ve just offended will throw their hands up and lament how that accomplishes nothing. But if I think about those people every day, then when I am in a position of power, I will be empathetic enough to do something. If I ever become a policymaker, politician or community organizer, I won’t forget the hungry. I see so many people in my parents’ generation who never use their skills and expertise to help others. Lawyers, doctors, businessmen — many seem to forget the less fortunate because they neglected to foster an ethos of service.
Secondly, I always try to be involved with at least one service project at any given time. As of now, I’m co-leading an Alternative Spring Break trip about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. Over spring break we’ll travel around and talk to a lot of organizations involved in combating the spread and stigma of HIV. We will even get a chance to assemble safe-sex kits, do some outreach and participate in a needle exchange. Will this make a difference in combating the epidemic? Statistically, of course not. That isn’t the point. The point is that when these participants are on the frontline of medicine, community planning and law, they’ll remember the HIV-positive world, and will look to alleviate the stress that community faces.
Finally, I always try to be a good person. Honesty, integrity, forthrightness, dependability, etc: These are creeds which all men can aspire to, but few do. We let obligations slide. We let other people carry our weight in groups, projects or teams. We abandon friends and flail at the sight of confrontation. We avert serious issues and steer our ships toward clear weather, even if that leads to the wrong destination. Now, I make as many mistakes as the next person and I’m certainly no saint. But I aspire to live in a way that treats people well and fairly. Taking care of the people near you is high aspiration, and a dependable form of service.