I like to think that I am a selfless person who serves others, but the reality is that sometimes I’m as self-obsessed as anyone and my service attempts can be pathetic attempts to make myself feel better instead of actually helping anyone.
Last year, I set a goal to serve someone every day and write it down. I didn’t want to serve just so I could check it off my to-do list; I want to genuinely love and help other people. But I’m not always in the right mindset, so I set the goal as a reminder to think outside myself.
This is some of what I learned:
1. Serve small.
Often we want to make a big difference. We want to change the world. We want to give away a million dollars, start a new organization, and travel to faraway countries. We think that if we serve, we need to do it in really big ways. And then we don’t do anything.
I have been guilty of getting excited over giving away hundred of dollars to some great cause and then refusing to give away a single dollar at a grocery checkout. I want to make a big difference and in the process, I forget to do small, daily things.
Often we want to serve in big ways to make ourselves feel better. I truly believe small things can make a bigger difference than those really big things. Small things can happen consistently in a way that changes ourselves and the people around us.
Once, when my husband was in surgery, my uncle called me. He just called. It was a small thing, but it meant so much to me. It helped me know that I wasn’t alone, and that was what I needed the most.
If we think about true friendship, it exists in small things — a text, a smile, a single conversation, or a small and thoughtful present. Most people around us need support in small ways, and if we are too worried about doing big things to make ourselves feel better, we forget to take the time to say hello, to respond to an email, or to reach out and listen for a few minutes.
People don’t need us to solve their problems and change their whole lives; mostly, they just need a friend who will consistently be there for them.
2. Think about people.
Service isn’t about dollar amounts and hours spent. Service is about people. The people that you know and the people that you come across in your daily life are the people who need you.
We all have our struggles. The rich and famous need help and love sometimes, just like the poor and forgotten. It’s easy to want to help destitute strangers; it’s a lot harder to really get to know someone and support them in a meaningful way.
Often, we serve in ways that make us feel good, but they are not actually helping any specific person. For example, we might feel good about donating specific items — food, stuffed animals, blankets, whatever. We can imagine how those items could help some stranger. But giving stuff and money isn’t as valuable as giving of ourselves.
I try to think of my children, my family, and my neighbors — the people I see every day. They often need help, and I can do the the little that I can.
When I found out my sister was pregnant, I wanted to do something for her, even though I lived hours away. So I ordered her pizza for her family. I would have never thought of it unless I was thinking of her specifically and wanting to help her out.
3. Don’t judge.
It is so easy to judge people who are having a hard time. It’s so easy to say that they aren’t coping very well; they are at fault; their problem would go away if only they could be better.
Often, we refuse to give because we judge.
Stop the judgment and just give anyway.
Your money may not be used in a way that you would agree with. You might be hurt sometimes. You might be rejected. You might find yourself needing to forgive someone.
But forgive. And don’t expect anyone to be perfect. We all make mistakes. We need help because we make mistakes. We need to teach and help each other to become better. We need to have hope that people can genuinely change.
We need love without judgment at certain times in our lives; and we can give that love to others.
Many times when I have struggled with some mental health issues, my mom has taken the time to listen to me, without judgment. It helped me get through that moment and to know that I was still worthwhile.
4. Be present.
Our phones and social media can often take us away from the people we need to serve the very most.
Look up and around you. Notice the people that are there. Take the time to be present with what is actually happening in your life.
Writing texts or commenting on posts or reading the news are not bad things to do — but sometimes we can get so caught up in the scrolling that we never bother to look up and see who is next to us.
We can be kind to the people we encounter at school, work, and wherever else we go. We can be present in our own homes and our own families. And when we are present, we might discover that the people that need our help the most are right there. Just look up.
Often we can intentionally plan for ways to serve others; but sometimes service must be spontaneous, a response to a feeling that we might not fully understand.
I was walking through a store when I saw photo album that reminded me of a family member. I almost walked by it, and then I decided to pick it up and buy it for her.
5. Try, even if you are completely inadequate.
Over the years, I have had friends that have had intense and difficult problems. I have wanted to help them, and I didn’t know how. Nothing I could do would solve their problem in any meaningful way.
Sometimes, I was absent because I felt so inadequate. I was worried about saying the wrong thing, thinking that there was nothing I could do.
Sometimes, I have tried and failed. I have gone to help someone and it didn’t work. I have said the wrong thing. I have had awkward conversations that went nowhere. I have offended.
But I’m going to keep trying. Because my imperfect efforts are better than nothing. Because sometimes those awkward conversations actually do help, even a little bit. Because real friends are present in hard times. Because being inadequate is not a good excuse.
I wanted to give my friend flowers when I found out she was going through some hard times. I lived too far away from the store, but I went out and I got some sticks and some pieces of paper and I made her flowers. I’m not incredibly crafty either, but I tried. I almost didn’t give them to her because I felt they were inadequate. But I brought them over anyway. And months later, they are still on her shelf.
Just try. Try even if you aren’t sure how. Try and you’ll find that you become more adequate and more able to help.
Our lives are not really about ourselves. Our lives can be spent in serving and helping the people around us, even in small ways. As we keep trying to make a difference, we will find a greater degree of happiness and love.