November 24, 1991

An Essay on Community Service

Because You Can
by Mark A. Hager

[Written for the 1992 Kansas State University Community Service Program Seminar Reader.]

Welcome to the world of public service. If you're serious about it, it will change your life. If you're not, hold on to your hat. Nobody enters and exists this world through the same door.

Not so long ago, I endured a series of discussions with service providers where the central question was "Why do you choose to dedicate your time to serving others?" The only conclusion I can draw from the variety of answers I heard is that people hold a wide range of philosophies regarding service. Even though most answers were carefully scripted and well-rehearsed, the motivations were as diverse as the people who divulged them. Social analyst Nancy Gibbs notes that "if 80 million adults are volunteering, then there may be 80 million impulses for doing so -- whether political, professional, spiritual, or personal. The precise mixture is measured from needs within and needs without. In the end, the decision to volunteer usually occurs at a crossroads, where moral indignation and moral responsibility meet." Everyone has their own motivation and philosophy. I offer mine solely because it is what I have to offer.

The fine line between moral indignation and self-righteousness is often just a matter of personal rhetoric. If you can fool yourself into believing that you are serving a cause "because you like helping people," then you, like the vast majority of service providers, will be seeing only part of the picture. The world is too big a place and has too many real problems for us to see our social responsibility solely in terms of personal interest.

I'm trying to get at two grains of truth here: the first is that our motivations are seldom what we think they are. The second is that volunteering to help someone should never be accompanied by a desire to get a pat on the back. If the word humanity means anything, it means that you should lend a hand to others for one simple reason: because you can.

By popular legend, America was built through an attitude of Volunteerism. Somehow, though, the American culture has become so highly individualized that we have to re-learn what it means to consider others' interests as important as our own. Today we read about barn-raising spirit and true community, but we are out of touch with the real meanings that these attitudes must have conveyed. Twentieth century America is a "me first now" culture. Even our religious doctrines focus on notions of personal relationship rather than civic responsibility. Theoretically, if all of us "succeed" as individuals, then there is no need to consider the success of the whole. In practice, rugged individualism results in broken spirits and broken homes, hungry neighbors, and a destructive attitude of superiority toward other races, other countries, and our natural surroundings. Unless we re-awaken ourselves to understand our civic responsibility to care for others, the social fabric of America will continue to fray.

Ironically, my words about the American condition come to you from an isolated town in West Africa. Recently, the United Nations Development Programme released its rankings from its 1991 Human Development Index. Sierra Leone had no problem ranking 160 out of 160 countries studied by the UN. With the highest infant mortality rate in the world, the average Sierra Leonean lives to 42 years. The adult literacy rate stands at less than 14 percent, which is no surprise because the average "years of school" for the Sierra Leonean population is less than one. Rampant inflation, devaluing currency, rebel incursions, corrupt officials, tropical diseases, twelve languages, decaying roads, and an absense of water works and electricity make Sierra Leone a truly interesting place to work and play. A woman recently wrote in a Florida publication that the miracle of Sierra Leone is that "you wake up and it's still there." I, however, don't think of it as a miracle. The way the people in this country survive from day to day can be summed up in one word: community.

True community is as hard to define as it is to achieve. If you think I'm talking about a "place where people live," then quit reading now because you aren't going to understand me. I'm referring to the sense of communal dedication and responsibility that Scott Peck and others write so extensively about. I'm talking about commitment to a body of brothers and sisters. In a community, you don't serve another for money, for glory, or even just because you want to. In true community, the motivation to serve another is so basic that it seems almost trivial: you serve because you can. In Sierra Leone, a person is revered for giving his or her money away -- not for being able to amass it. I've seen a large bridge made from sticks and vines by the self-help efforts of an entire village. I've toured large farms that are developed through back-breaking labor solely by community effort for the community good. If you can, but you don't, you might as well find a new place to stay. In Sierra Leone, the rugged individualist doesn't live very long.

So what was I saying about the social fabric of America? Granted, Sierra Leone and the United States are two very different places, but they are made different solely by the differing attitudes of the people within, which in turn are shaped by history and the availability of resources. One hundred and fifty years ago, however, the places were not so different. Diligence in development and technological advance have no doubt made America an easier place to live, but they have also taken their toll on the national soul. The age gap widens. The gender gap widens. The rich-poor gap threatens to swallow us all. Individuals escape from hollow marriages and abusive parents into television and drugs. The proliferation of computers in the schools is no more notable than the proliferation of guns and knives. Inner-city gangs outnumber youth service corps, and standards of education are consistently compromised. Industrial development spells industrial wastes and a growing indifference toward environmentally sound methods for disposal.

All of this is the result of development and technological advance? Well, probably not. Certainly the answer is not deconstruction of our development -- the answer lies along the lines of a pathological change in our attitudes. I thnk we can learn a lot from the lessons taught by the people of Sierra Leone. Service should not be a means of seeking a perk on our emotional résumé; service should be a simple end in itself.

Two summers ago, my good friend's mother asked me, "Mark, what is the answer to the world's problems?" My answer came quickly: "We need to all love each other more." We have to re-learn what it means to consider others' interests as important as our own. We've got to be in touch with why we're doing what we're doing and take responsibility for it. No doubt you've heard that the price of liberty and freedom are fulfillment of duty and civic responsibility. That's the deal. If you can't answer the call, you're part of the problem. If you can, that's all the reason you need to kneel down in the ashes of the world to serve those around you.

Mark A. Hager is a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone, where teaching secondary school and constructing latrines give him an excuse to drink palm wine. He served on the Leoti, Kansas, Community Service Program Summer Team in 1989, and was the student coordinator for summer teams from 1989 to 1991. He was awarded the B.S. in Speech from KSU in 1990.