On Goodness, Part 2

“We are blessed to have the privilege to serve others.  And it is a privilege.  There is no higher calling.

From that kernel of truth, I’ve no choice but to wonder: is it naïve to think that we might conceptualize our professional lives differently?  Is it possible that the question “what’s best for me, for my career, for my life?” should pale in comparison to the question “am I doing the most good I can possibly do?”

– Sasha Dichter, Acumen Fund

It felt appropriate, following my little ramble on goodness yesterday. Dichter’s whole entry is actually worth the read (http://sashadichter.wordpress.com/2011/04/08/the-spirit-of-service/) but I’m just going to zero in on this one snippet.

Do I re-conceptualize my work life?

Absolutely, and constantly. Dichter says a poignant thing when he talks about how, “We’re wired, fundamentally, only to experience fully the reality in front of us.”

This can’t be any truer in my case, when what is in front of me rotates between spreadsheets, databases, word documents, and social networking websites (hah!). So some of the more meaningful things I ingest are the inspiring nuggets of wisdom and truth I stumble upon on a TED talk challenging us to re-conceptualize what we do for living, and use our skills and talents, preferably, to serve others.

It’s the daily dose that gets me through.

The temptation of course, once I’ve dug myself deeper into the doldrums of administrative work (for a good non-profit, mind you), is to jump ship entirely, or re-think how I’d personally re-invent the wheel, saving myself (and maybe others) from a work-life that ought to have a “spirit of service” but instead, a soul-sucking means to an unidentifiable end.

Whether I like it or not, it begs that second question, of “what’s best for me, for my career, for my life?” when really, I should be asking the third: “am I doing the most good I can possibly do?”

And the answer to the latter, I find, is both yes, and no.

Yes, in the simple sense that I am doing what I’m paid to do, and doing it well (enough).  Here is where I am exercising some degree of self-grace. Given my position, for all its structure and limitation, I think I’m pushing back at the periphery and stretching out my bubble as far as I can.

No, in that there’s more to be done and I want to be one (of many) to do it. Beyond the expectations listed out in my job description, I’m after the liberating satisfaction of knowing that I’m putting forth my best and whole self, for the sake of furthering a best, and holistic, service.

There is simply too much work, and we’re running out of time. We’re running out of time, because too many kids are growing up too fast to know what it’s like to be a kid and have basic necessities of food and clean water, stable shelter and clothing. Too many youth are turning into adults without the right to education, without the fruitful experience of a job, and the rewarding experience of a paycheck. And yet, too many adults are growing older, faster, not knowing where their life had gone and what they had worked for other than to accrue wealth and share it with no one.

I admit, these are pretty broad generalizations and any adult can defensively, and understandably exclaim, “That’s not me!”. Fair enough. But even if we were all doing our part to at least see all children as our children, too many of those kids grow up never actually believing that they are cared for, that they belong. And I can’t blame them, either, for ever wondering why they weren’t.

I care for them to know, that we do, and that we’ll come through.

I do what I can, now, within the confines of my cubicle (pretty sure I’ve said that before), to advocate for the youth I know here at Covenant House, and the youth I’ll never meet, still on the street, still wondering if someone cares.

I do it by filling out spreadsheets with names of all the different adults who’ve expressed some degree of interest at caring, and I’ll bother them, over and over, about our work and the kids.

There will be a day wherein I’m no longer sorting columns and re-formatting letters of thanks. One day, I pray, I won’t have to make cold calls to anybody, though, I should probably  prepare myself for that really critical one I’ll have to make in the future to some CEO of some Fortune 500, waiting for someone just to ask.

The day that this work, is over, would simply mark the day that another work, for me, has begun. And I pray that on that day, I commit to doing even more good than I had before.

On Goodness

“I just want to be good” – Damian, from “Millions”

If you haven’t seen “Millions” yet, you should. It’s this little gem of a film from Danny Boyle, about these two young brothers who discover a bag filled with a million pounds (literally) drop from the sky. The story really revolves around the younger brother, Damian, who is a tender-hearted boy that wants to give away the money to whoever needs it. As he says it himself, he just wants to be good.

Anyway, I don’t mean to write up a film review, but I do recommend you give it a look. It’s a simple story with some fantastical elements to it but it’s also one of the few films in the last decade that I’ve stumbled upon wherein the central character of the film, is, well, genuinely good.

There’s something incredibly redeeming about that, albeit unrealistic perhaps. The possibility, anyway, that good people exist in the world, because they choose to be so. And perhaps the younger they are, the more likely that they can be, sheltered still from the many material pursuits that lie ahead.

I could relate with Damian. In fact, I’m pretty sure I was Damian, except without the million pounds, or in my case, pesos. When recalling my childhood, I’d be hard-pressed to any times wherein I harbored any ill-will towards other children. If anything, my heart sank for the other kids I saw who had far less than I did.

Without the words to really express it, something in me stirred every time a kid held up sampaguita flowers outside our car window, knocking, begging that we buy some from them. I don’t remember once, actually buying any. I couldn’t bring myself to demand my parents to lower their windows and empty their pockets of whatever they had, for a sampaguita flower they didn’t need.

If only I had a million pesos.

There’s a little “Damian” left in me. But he has an even smaller voice now than before. I had not the words as a young child to express outrage over the kind of shameful inequity of wealth distribution and staggering poverty rates that continue to plague my former country.

But now, as an adult with a few more resources to give, and certainly more words to use at my disposal, I am saying far less than I probably could, and doing less than I ought to.

The “Damian” in me hasn’t quite died. But maybe he takes some really long naps.

When I’ve successfully quieted myself and drowned out all the other thoughts that tend to occupy my mind space – things like “I need to save up more money” or “I’m not an artist” – some of the seemingly dormant truths within me wake from their slumber and make themselves known. Silently still, but the feeling can be intense.

Out of the calm and quiet I still hear myself, my younger self, repeating that I just want to be good.

I’ve dedicated my entire life towards goodness, toward being an upstanding, morally-conscious citizen, driven by ideals, values, and principle. I’ve tried living as selflessly as I possibly could.

But I’m never always good, never always selfless. And the older I get, the less I feel compelled to live as simply as this, to be good, for the sake of itself.

I have too many wants now, and they’ve gotten in the way.

I am not making the point that this is the ultimate thing to strive for. After all, the older we get, the more attuned we are to the complexities of living a moral life, and the more willing we are to make the kind of compromises we need to make, to avoid more pain, even at the expense of living for the greater good of things.

And it is valid, it really is. We aren’t our best selves, I feel, when we get to be this way. But often times, we don’t know any better, and even when we do, almost always, the easier way, the one that requires less of us, looks far more appealing.

Being bent towards goodness, even without much of an action plan, is still far better than a slew of other yearnings we might have: for immense fortune, for a sexier physique, for a bigger fan-base, and especially, for the many damaging vices I need not name.

Frankly, I’m not ready to argue for why a life of goodness is the life worth choosing. As I struggle to find a convincing argument right now I can only muster up these few (and not necessarily enticing) incentives – it will be more rewarding than we think, in probably more intangible ways than we’re used to receiving; living for your own pursuits might simply get redundant and boring, and then the ever more dangerous “what am I doing with my life?” question might surface at a most inopportune time of your life; your conscience will feel a little more clear and you might sleep better at night.

In the end, we might still want the tangible rewards, the trivial pursuits, and we might not mind the sleepless nights. That’s ok. I’d rather we be honest about that than trick ourselves into thinking we desire, absolutely, to just be good.

But I still think it is a posture worth taking. That’s all, really. It isn’t, nor should it be, the end of our efforts.  If it were, we’d all be too devastated once we find out that we’re bound to fail in the process; we’ll bite off more than we can chew, taking on a standard too high for us to handle.

Somehow, in my most idealistic mind, just the posture toward goodness will already do wonders, because I think being bent towards goodness forces us to take a stance that isn’t all that comfortable for ourselves, but makes us sturdier and more dependable, for others. People who would have otherwise wanted to strike it out on their own might want to actually lean upon us for support, once it’s clear that someone is waiting to catch them, just in case. And then, a beautiful kind of unraveling happens, a kind of co-dependency humans were built for and we’d learn how to trust in one another like we hadn’t before.

If that’s what awaits me when I choose for goodness, then I’m in.