When I was young I remember my mom taking me out with her. Sometimes it would be to the nearby wet market, or the hawkers for a meal and I would often chance upon encounters that I remember sticking out as a child.

Sometimes it would be an aunty selling tissue packets which my mom would buy even though I would point out that we already had a packet, or it would be an uncle collecting newspaper or cardboard that mom would give the newspapers we had collected for months to. Other times, it would be giving money to students collecting money for charity causes. As a child I would lump these moments together because mom would often explain to me that there are many people less fortunate than us and we should try to do what we can to help them.

Mom would often give me the money to then give to the aunty or uncle making this a very intimate encounter. They would often smile, and I would smile back, often unable to communicate with them very well, but that seemed enough to convince my young mind that we were doing something good, surely and those smiles stuck in my memory. It did though leave a slight lingering feeling that something about those encounters were a little unusual, but I could not quite identify why or what.

In school, as I became older, I had the opportunity to volunteer at an old folks’ home. As the weeks went by, I got to know the residents better and really saw the difference that our presence made. They would smile when we came and the matron told us that they looked forward to our presence every week. We got to know what they liked. I also felt very grateful that they let me into their lives and to be the one to provide them company. For that time each week that I spent with them, there was nothing that separated them and I, nothing to shield me from the raw experience.

Each week on the bus ride to and back from the home I had time to reflect on my experience, and on my thoughts and what I learnt.

I revisited my idea of helping people which in my mind was mostly about giving money. The residents didn’t need that. They just needed company, someone to talk to, not someone handing them cash, not someone coming from a position of power or superiority. That experience was also different. It felt more genuine. What I was doing there wasn’t to help them, it was to serve them from a place of humility, connection, and empathy, and that made all the difference. In her piece “Helping, Fixing or Serving”, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen puts it best when she said “… when you serve, you see life as whole. When we serve in this way, we understand that this person's suffering is also my suffering, that their joy is also my joy and then the impulse to serve arises naturally - our natural wisdom and compassion presents itself quite simply.”

I thought more about this, and that odd feeling I had when I was a kid trying to help by giving away money, it all made sense now. I was actually feeling uncomfortable because of this feeling of inequality between me, the kid with the money, and the aunty or uncle. That helping connoted a sense of superiority on my part because I was more equipped to help the other party with less ability, having the upper hand with the money which I had the choice to give away. It was not a relationship between equals, and I think the aunty and uncle would have felt this inequality. In wanting to help, I may unintentionally have diminished their sense of self-worth and self-esteem. In my mind that didn’t seem like the right sort of feelings to have when you are trying to do good. Perhaps there was ego and power involved as well.

While this was not why I was trying to help them I couldn’t help but wonder about it. If this is helping, are we not seeking to profit emotionally from the inequality for our own selfish means? It seems so convenient and sterile that you could get your ego quota filled by writing a check for some charity. Yet at the same time, I don’t think that all people seeking to help others want to feel that way and money can certainly be useful.

I wondered about charity events where people dressed up and ate luxuriously while talking about helping. Who were they helping, really?

I wondered if it was better for the wealthy to give money instead of time, never mind if it was helping rather than serving and never mind if their ego got that boost. Does the end justify the means?

 In the years that followed I found myself finding some answers to these questions, but in a lot of ways more questions than answers and I’ve come to accept that perhaps more important than having answers is to have a genuine desire to do good, and whatever form that might take as long as the intention is right, chances are the outcomes should be right too - even if it means a collection of tissue packets!
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Sharing Questions:
  • 1. How do we move from a mindset of helping to serving?
  • 2. Can we identify moments in our lives where we have experienced trying to help someone? Reflect deeply on the encounters you had with people around you who may have expressed serving you in a silent and unconditional way

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