I have this friend, a Jesuit, with whom I love to argue. One day, after reading about Sandy Hook, I asked why his god would allow such things. It was a childish question. I am not a Christian. I’d decided that if there were a god, he was at best indifferent and at worst, actively cruel. I’d long decided not to have these conversations with people, especially with those people to whom Christ was a central aspect of their lives. But I was angry. I was confused.
My friend told me that God was looking for saints.
That rocked me a little. On one hand, it confirmed my thoughts on God, that he was vicious and mean. On the other, it struck me that this was a canny way to see who would rise to the top.
Then my friend told me that most saints went completely unrecognized.
That shut me up for a long time. I went home and I thought. I spun around the concept of sainthood. I tried to make sense of the whole thing. I thought about what made a person a saint.
My friend, the Jesuit, told me that saints work to change the world one person at a time. I spent a lot of time thinking of the reasons someone would do that. For me, it was as much about making amends. In my life, I’ve committed a lot of what can only be called sins, and there have been many people who reached into my life and changed the world.
As part of my recovery, I have learned that making amends is imperative. I cannot go back and erase the pain I’ve caused. Some of the people against whom I have sinned are dead. Others, it would only cause more pain. For the most part though, I have apologized and come to terms with most of the people I’ve hurt.
Saying I’m sorry, though, for me, is not enough. I’ve chosen, personally and professionally, to repay the kindness and support of those who changed my life by working with people to help them change theirs.
Service, for me, is a kind of penance. It is my personal road to redemption. I have done this so long that I cannot think of my life in any other terms.
I have talked to the people with whom I work. Some of them do what they do to make them feel better about themselves. Others do it because, in their minds, it only makes sense to eliminate need and pain in order to reduce crime and keep themselves safe. All of these are good reasons to be of service.
For me, though, service is a spiritual exercise. In my life, I see sin as those acts that hurt others. Sin is taking away from the world without maintaining the balance. Part of the reason I do what I do throughout the day is that I feel a weight of gratitude and obligation, but those are not the only reasons.
While I do not believe in the same god as the Christians in my life, I do believe in a spiritual reward and service, that working in the world to tip the balance away from selfishness and self-regard to a more gentle and giving existence is the only sure fire way to redeem myself. We all do things that make life harder for others. It’s human nature to meet our own needs first, and sometimes, that harms the people in our lives.
We are animals and we are more than animals. I believe that we have souls and our souls can only be saved through leaving the lives of those around us in better shape than when we found them. It is not altruism. When I can work with a student to see beyond the limits of desire to the needs of the world around them, I fill with a kind of joy and light. I feel lighter. My work redeems me. It makes me feel good. Service, for me, is enlightened self-interest. My personal world and the world around me is better when I am of service. When all I do is take, I feel awkward and angry. Balancing service and self-interest leaves me feeling as if the world is kinder, gentler.
I am not a saint. I take, but I try to give. I try to see the geniuses and the saints when I look at the world. I feel better when I see someone smile. I am not a Christian and I do not define sin the same as Christians, but I do know that life is more dear, more blessed when I maintain a balance. I believe that service, for penance or redemption, for self-interest or simply because it makes sense, is a spiritual exercise. For me, happiness is surrounding myself with people looking for joy instead of the next score.