Here is a truth I have come to know in Alcoholics Anonymous service work: I have never performed an act, whether a twelve step call, helping set up or clean up a meeting, carrying the message to a prison or detox institution when I did not feel better after.
On the one hand, a quote from the Dalai Lama in the Book of Joy might seem relevant:
“Then as we approached Patna, under a hut I saw an old man lying on the ground. His hair was disheveled, his clothes were dirty, and he looked sick. He had no one to take care of him. Really, he looked as if he were dying. All the way to the hospital, I was thinking of this man and felt his suffering, and I completely forgot my own pain” p. 47
But I know there is much more . . . again from the Dalai Lama in the same volume:
Foolish selfishness means you just think of yourself, don’t care about others, bully others, exploit others. In fact, taking care of others, helping others, ultimately is the way to discover your own joy and to have a happy life. So that is what I call wise selfishness. p. 48
This latter quote articulates well an understanding that I have come to know. I expressed this to the family of Peruvian student who lived with my wife and I for two years while she completed a Masters Degree in the U.S. When the student’s family gathered in our dining room for a meal at the time of the her graduation, I noted how they always thanked my wife and I for providing a home and watching out after their daughter/granddaughter/niece/sister while she was far from her Lima, Peru home. I expressed to the family how it was my wife and I who wanted to thank them for allowing us the opportunity to be of service, to be in community with others – something that enriches the lives of my wife and I. This is where the “wise selfishness” comes into the picture – or the very essence of the prayer popularly attributed to St. Francis with the lines “for it is in giving that one receives, it is in self-forgetting that one finds, it is in pardoning that one is pardoned”
I found this logic flowing too in another recent conversation with a colleague. I noted how they were overworked and that I could assist. They responded that they had not wanted to burden me with additional tasks because they knew I was spending a lot of time in medical appointments and had a lot going on with my recent cancer diagnosis. The “wise selfishness” came to the fore again. I noted that if I had no reason to get up in the morning, then I might just as well lay in bed all day and think about my disease(s). By the end of the day, the colleague filled my dropbox with sketches of field maps to digitize – relieving her of a task, and providing me with the opportunity to work on something I am good at and enjoy doing.
What more could I ask for? Wise selfishness, indeed!