Thursday, July 11, 2013

What is True Service?

What is true service, or how can one actually be of service to another person is a question that has been challenging me for the last few years.


Because about four years ago I found myself in a situation  that I honestly could not have gotten out of without the help of others; without people being of 'true service' to me. 

Allow me to set the stage.

About six years ago, I decided that I would take care of a parent, my mother, who was living with the onset of Alzheimer’s -- a debilitating, intractable terminal illness. I did this, largely on my own, for the next four years.

During the last couple of years Alzheimer’s became all-consuming for her as well as me. From then I was unable to complete book-editing assignments in order to bring in an income. My mother and I subsisted on what little savings I had along with her meager pension and social security allotment.  But money was not an issue; we managed.

Then, after my mother passed away, I was left in an isolated, exhausted, financially destitute and -- I can only describe it as an existentially bewildered and completely out-of-synch state of being.

Taking care of someone in your own family, especially a parent, is not like taking care of a friend or a stranger.  As they inevitably become increasingly dependent on you, the life-roles reverse. The very personal and intimate sense of a secure place in life that your parents provided for you as an infant, you now get to return to them as an adult. You experience the same kind of extraordinary bonding  -- their life is more valuable than your own -- that usually only takes place between a parent and their dependent young children.

Only a parent is nurturing a child into more life and there's a reward for them in the end; you, on the other hand,  are in an intensive 24/7 tilt-a-whirl relationship with life and death that abruptly ends one day with them leaving you and this world... 

Therefore, there's no way to taper off on your feelings and prepare for the loss. Not if you are committed to being there with them until their final breath. So when it happens, when those  last chortling breaths cease, the loss you feel is not the usual one, nor is the grief you experience normal grief.

For reasons I don't want to rehash here, but which I go into detail in my book,  An Odyssey in the Great American Safety Net, I was soon unceremoniously evicted from the home that I had been living in while taking care of my mother. Let's just say, to be kind, that it was done by an 'insensitive' sibling who was the executor of my mother's estate as well as an aggressively successful real-estate agent who wanted the house on the market and sold as soon as possible. Two years earlier, this very same sibling had taken me to court in order to have our mother taken out of my care and placed with 'professional care-givers' in a nursing home. That I had to fight Alzheimer’s, and her, at the same time was not only grossly unfair but mentally and emotionally exhausting . There are no two people alive with more different values than my sister and me.

During the time that remained for me to stay in my home -- a few months --  I sank into a deep funk. A close friend who was calling me regularly noticed the change in my condition and advised me to go a hospital. I reluctantly forced myself to get out of the house and check into an emergency room. There I was diagnosed with an acute stress/anxiety disorder that was causing me to feel a debilitating general sense of anxiety and gloom.  The treatment was a few days worth of anti-anxiety meds and the phone number of a public mental health facility that didn't have an appointment available for another three months. 

Once I was finally legally evicted, Social Services stepped in and placed me in a one-room motel room where I assumed that I was supposed to languor until I expired from despair and ennui.

I laid on top of the bed (during the six weeks I would be in the motel room I never once opened the bed and actually got in it) and as I stared up at the cigarette- and crack-smoke-stained ceiling I thought to myself: 'Lord, God, Life, Any Thing, I'm not getting out of here with my life or sanity intact without some help'. 

Help did not come immediately, but it came. Within the next three months I would meet a handful of the most extraordinary, selfless, and I would say saintly people, I have ever encountered. I didn't know any of them before this ignominy befell me, and yet they unquestioningly helped me find permanent housing, furniture, food -- and for the first time in longer than I could remember,  a sense of security and hope. 

When an experience like this happens to you -- and  you've taken the necessary time to recover and restore yourself  -- there develops inside of you a very strong desire to want to reciprocate for the help you received by being of service to others in similar situations.

Doing so is not as easy as one might think, which brings us back to the question of what is true service. During the years following my 'recovery', I worked as a volunteer teaching creative writing to youths in detention, as well as a counselor for people and families in crisis. None of these, and other similar activities, satisfied my desire to return the kind of service I received. For one thing, state-funded institutions want to see tangible results for  the  money they are spending to 'rehabilitate' people, so their approach invariably comes down to trying to change someone from being who they are into being something they should be -- basically, acting like a well-educated middle-class person.

That mold does not fit everyone (including me). If it did, I probably would have been more concerned for my financial well-being than for my mother's quality of life, turned her over to ($7.50 an hour) 'professional care givers' and avoided the dilemma. 

The kind of service that sticks out in my mind, and what defines for me what 'true service' is, is that which was provided for me when I needed it. The people who helped me never once asked what happened that got me into the situation I was in, nor did they ever offer unsolicited advice. Their attitude was 'you need help; how can we help you?' No more; no less.

You don't know what a relief that is when, in truth, you are too overwhelmed by your unsettling circumstances to understand what is happening to you. You are just living it, hoping you will survive, and that maybe you’ll figure it out later. As I described it in the book I wrote about my experience: 'What good would it do you to be able to name the make and model of the bus that just ran you over?'

So that has become my model for true service. One of the persons who helped me out the most when I was in need ministers a charitable outreach to the homeless in our community.  By and large, these  people are not coming to outreach in order to be rescued from how or where they are living, nor are they looking for counseling  or advice -- psychologically, spiritually, or otherwise. They simply want to be able to come to a place where they will be treated with the same kindness, respect and dignity as any other human being.

I respect that, and them. I know what it's like to be looked at like a one-dimensional 'social problem' in need of fixing. So lately I've been volunteering to help set up the outreach, which  twice a month provides free clothing, food, a  home-cooked  meal and medical checkups for those who want them.

On outreach day, sometimes I show up for a home-cooked meal. I don't talk with any one there about anything other than what they might want to talk to me about.