“I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted and behold, service was joy.”
~ Rabindranath Tagore
It was a rather intense weekend.
But in spite of that, or more correctly, because of it, I’m here to tell you – hospice volunteer orientation training rocks.
I found myself deposited into a posse of brave hearts. Here’s the funny thing…they all look like regular people.
But you have been warned! Angels walk amongst us.
We went through a variety of listening exercises and possible scenarios on how and what to do, as we learn to companion people on their journey (yes, like any group, club or corporation, there is always a particular application of language, and really, what other shorthand could one use?).
Seasoned volunteers told their stories of grief and visits gone sideways. As well, there were charts and graphs and one-on-one exercises that made it apparent as to why there were so many Kleenex boxes in the room.
More than anything, and what was stressed over and over, and is now my takeaway for not only this business of hospice volunteering, but for life – is this:
I am not here to help.
Instead, we are here to serve.
I learned a little about the difference a long time ago. I used to spend more time than I like to admit, swooping in to ‘save’ my sister. I was her rescuer. After all, she told me over and over, only I could help her.
Did you notice my beautiful shimmering cape in that scenario?
Oh yes, I was the capable one, the one who knew what to do, the supreme helper. I had the cash, the car, the abilities. Until one day, after I cancelled plans with a friend because my sister needed saving, yet again, my wise friend said to me, “You get as much out of being her rescuer as she gets out of being a victim.”
Shut the front door!
It was true. And that, my friends, is an illustration of helping as well as the beginning of a much longer story for another time…
Instead, let us return to the subject of language. It is, of course, wonderful to help. Here’s an abbreviated dictionary definition of help:
to give assistance or support
to make more pleasant or bearable : improve, relieve, rescue, save
to be of use
to change for the better
This is all very good stuff, but words are tricky and helping implies that someone is the helper and the other the helpee (this is actually a word. I thought I’d invented it until I looked it up).
Another way to say this would be to call one the benefactor, and the other, the beneficiary. But see what happens then? Does that not imply that one is slightly superior to the other? Hi, I’m here to be your benevolent benefactor.
Instead, our group was asked to consider the idea of serving rather than helping.
Some in our group protested that this was simply semantics. Of course they were right. But then, isn’t that true for so much of our language? I believe the right word is very important. Words carry power.
Serving, not servitude, but truly serving, implies something that somehow ennobles both of us and creates equality.
Rachel Remen, M.D. writes in her essay, In the Service of Life, “Helping incurs debt. When you help someone they owe you one. But serving, like healing, is mutual. There is no debt. I am as served as the person I am serving. When I help I have a feeling of satisfaction. When I serve I have a feeling of gratitude.”
If I came to your door in an attitude of serving something greater than both of us, perhaps in the service of friendship, or love, or in service to kindness, than I am simply beside you and walking with you in whatever you’re experiencing. In hospice language: I am companioning you on your journey.
I cannot tell you what to do. I can only listen with an open heart. I am there simply and only to hold the space that allows you to speak and perhaps for you to say what no one else wants to hear. Or maybe I am there to be comfortable in the sharing of silence.
Helping too often implies fixing and suggests something is broken. But, how on earth do I think I can fix death? And who am I to tell you how to live your last days?
But oh my! Don’t we all want to tell everyone else what they should do? Don’t we have the best answers for everyone else’s problems?
Certainly, we might have a good, maybe even a great solution, but, guess what? Turns out, that it’s not about me and how clever I am at solving problems. Instead, the point is for me to shut up and listen.
I need to kick my ego to the curb and simply be there. Within this attitude of service, some concrete bits of helping might occur, like straightening a blanket or adjusting a pillow, but this is not the superhero swooping-in-kind-of-help, these are simply some practicalities.
It was suggested, and I agree, that for most of us, this is going to be the growing edge, the concept we might struggle with the most.
But ultimately, this idea of service is not about words that are to be bandied about. Instead, it is about the attitude and intention we bring to each situation.
Serving is listening without judgement. Serving is being present. It is realizing that it is enough, more than enough, to be present. Serving recognizes that all lives are connected. That we are in this together.
We are here to serve the mystery that is life, not because it is broken, but because it is profound and holy.
“Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken.
Take heed, do not squander your life.”
If you liked this post, please feel free to share it widely. It’s a great opportunity to help! Ha! See what I did there?? What I really meant was, please think of sharing this post as being of service. Thank you.