“Ted Talks” started each day of our mission trip at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Ted is the executive director of Re-Member, an organization that coordinates volunteer efforts in the reservation. Our first morning there, Ted talked to us about the difference between fixing, helping and serving. He said, “When we fix we see life as broken. When we help we see life as weak But when we serve we see life as whole, ONE; serving is healing because serving happens between equals.”
Ted asked us to be sure we were on the Reservation to serve. That we recognize the people there as they are, for who they are. It was interesting to watch all the volunteers make a concerted effort to use the word “serve” during the week; to adjust our thinking and raise awareness of our mindset on the trip
All this started me thinking… it is one thing to go on a mission trip and “serve”, but how does this work in our real lives? After much pondering and some very insightful conversations, I’ve come to the conclusion that serving is an attitude more than an action.
Without an attitude of serving, volunteers at Pine Ridge might be apt to approach the people of the reservation in a condescending, judgmental way. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that happens all the time… “we are the white people here to fix things for you, then we’ll go back to our nice comfy homes and talk about how poor and pathetic you are. We are Christian and have the right God and right religion… you are just backward and wrong, so we’ll tell you what’s right and fix you. You are disabled and can’t do this for yourself, so we’ll help you, you poor thing.”
No one wants to be the recipient of that kind of behavior. No one needs that kind of “help”.
The whole issue is deeper than the difference between helping, fixing, and serving… the deeper issue is recognizing our shared humanity.
Serving happens when we don’t see the other as merely an object, but as a person, someone just like us. Serving happens when we remember that we are all the same inside. We have the same types of emotions, fears, dreams, hopes and desires. We all have our struggles, our baggage, our scars from life. No one is exempt. Serving happens when we move beyond judging and labeling another person. Serving happens when we come from a place of compassion.
Brene’ Brown, in her book Gifts of Imperfection, asserts, “Compassion is derived from Latin words meaning ‘to suffer with’. I don’t believe that compassion is our default response. I think our first response to pain – ours or someone else’s – is to self-protect. We protect ourselves by looking for someone or something to blame. Or sometimes we shield ourselves by turning to judgment or by immediately going into fix-it mode.”
Recognizing our shared humanity may be terribly difficult in some situations. In the case of the extreme poverty we saw in Pine Ridge, maybe it is just too hard to look at it because it hurts too much to even try to imagine what that is like, or what circumstances brought them to that point. So, instead people judge it – why don’t they just leave? why don’t they just get a job? Those of us who went to Pine Ridge heard this a lot when we returned and told our stories. This judgment serves us well if we are trying to keep the people at arm’s length. We have now dehumanized them. It is us and them.
It may be even harder to really look at addiction, because we know it is used to mask deep pain and we don’t want to know the pain that intimately, so we judge the addiction – “Oh, those Indians are just a bunch of alcoholics.” Again, we have kept them separate from us. We have protected ourselves and thrown up our shields. We have also dehumanized them and forgotten our shared humanity.
In a compassionate place of true serving we will strive to be open, to get to know the other person, to understand how they feel and what they struggle with, to put aside our knee-jerk judgments and labels. This applies everywhere, with every interaction. And it is crazy hard. But still we need to try.