Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work. - Aristotle
Meaning is a form of strength. It has the power to transform experience, to open the most difficult of work to the dimension of joy and even gratitude. Meaning is the language of the soul. – Rachel Naomi Remen
A Montana State University Honors Instructor Lori Lawson and I took 16 college students to the Dominican Republic last May. These young adults had spent a semester considering the characteristics of dire poverty and how it might be solved. They had read about micro finance, volunteerism, and government aid and had formulated opinions on how we might alleviate suffering. Full of ideas, we undertook a two-week service learning trip visiting impoverished communities and NGOs. Although a class on global poverty, my journey became an exploration on how we can “be of use”.
The students observed a meeting where 15 community members had collectively taken out small loans with Esperanza, a DR based micro finance and literacy organization. When it came time to repay part of the loan to Esperanza’s representative, our group realized that two of the members were not present with their payment. By their contract, the remaining 13 were then responsible for the missing members’ payment. Over the next ten minutes there was heightened anxiety and conversation on who might pay extra or go find the missing borrowers. Meanwhile, the students watched. As one young woman Danielle later observed, “That was one of the most uncomfortable parts of our trip. I had the twenty bucks they needed in my pocket, which I could have easily given. I would have been like instant government aid, but would that have been a good idea?” The students wrestled with how when to give as a country, an NGO or as an individual is not necessarily an easy formula.
Later, we painted a row of shacks in another neighborhood for a couple of hours. As we began, the owners’ children all picked up paintbrushes to help. Before long, some of the grown up residents took up paint cans and joined in. Other residents grabbed brooms and machetes to sweep dirt floors and pull down overgrown brush. The street was strikingly different after just two hours as we progressed from dirty shacks to bright yellow, blue, green and rose colored homes absent of trash. Did we make great changes that day? I’m not sure, but it was fun being creative and to see the painted-covered joy on the faces of the little children.
Our students also spent an afternoon working in a small public library tutoring children who, in a country of high illiteracy, may not be able to find help at home. For some, this was their most favorite volunteer activity. I however noticed that I was more interested in fostering the young adult experience than working directly with the local children. To be of use, I was better suited to mentoring the young adults than sitting with the younger set.
We were supposed to spend a day pouring concrete floors for new homes in a batey or sugar plantation community. We were to work with Haitan immigrants who are typically discriminated against and the country’s most destitute. Everyone had packed diligently for this day bringing construction clothes and gloves for the task and were busy that morning discussing the best sun cover and insect repellent. A few administrative errors later it became clear that we would not be able to volunteer in this way. Many of us were extremely disappointed. I was hoping to learn about life in the batey and Haitan culture. Others were looking forward to problem solving and still others to the hard physical activity. One young woman complained that this day was the purpose for her journey. Although we would have to donate time and $1000 to spend a day straining our backs, the lack of this activity was a loss and I noticed how much potential joy could be wrapped up in giving.
I came out of that trip realizing that we gave best when there was a combination of both joy and sense of purpose. Anthropologist Angeles Arrien often says, “Look for what has heart and meaning.” I felt most fulfilled when I was both having fun and being useful to others.
Play expert Dr. Stuart Brown noted that after interviewing Nobel laureate Roger Guillemin and polio researcher Jonas Salk that they were simply playing every day in their laboratories. Brown described Guillemin’s joy “as pure as that of a kid showing off a beautiful shell picked up at the seashore.” Meanwhile, their discoveries have saved countless lives and alleviated suffering. Financial guru Warren Buffett calls the resulting spirit of combining purpose with joy, “tap dancing to work.”
A core principle of the Hindu text, The Bhagavad-Gita, speaks of serving others, “Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. Do your work with the welfare of others always in mind.” Paradoxically, we are then told in the Gita that not only should you work tirelessly, but also not care about the outcome. Hmmm, work really, really hard, but don’t worry about what it yields? Feels like an impossible riddle until I combine service with enjoying the task I am completing.