What if I were to tell you that in the next few years an event will transform you by exposing you to things that make you a much better person. There’s a catch, though: The event itself will utterly break your heart. Would you sign on for this?
I would not. But I didn’t have a choice.
If you’re familiar with my story, you’ll know that the catalyst for my change was the sudden death of my son eight years ago. Ever since, I’ve been trying to make the best of the bad hand I was dealt. Isn’t that what we’re all asked to do? For me this meant trying to learn how to help people in need or trouble, really help them. I hoped that working on behalf of others would help me, too, by returning a sense of meaning to my life.
To my great surprise, this worked. Spending time with people who know how to gracefully serve others has transformed me. Not that it’s been an easy path. Far from it. But it’s gotten me where I had hoped to go.
The thing is, I can’t tell you exactly why.
How does witnessing deep acts of kindness bring a soul-torn woman back to life again? Several answers come quickly to mind, but they miss the deep truths I’ve begun to glimpse at the core of this work.
You might suggest, for example, that helping others drew me out of myself and made me forget my sadness, if only for short periods. You would be wrong. The sorrow of losing Reid seeped so deeply into me that it feels like it altered my DNA. Forgetting it for even a moment isn’t possible. Were I young enough to have more children, I’d worry that the signature of this grief would be stamped into their pores.
Understanding the complexity of deep and graceful service has been intellectually challenging, and that has been good for me. It’s so interesting to see what provides true aid and what does not. The needy, ill, and bereft are like the rest of us: opinionated, loving, stubborn, kind, proud, and idiosyncratic. There are no one-size-fits-all tricks for helping them.
Gradually I came to see that offering true service is a deeply spiritual act. To really help someone, I need to be willing to sit down and have a heart-to-heart with him—often a frightening proposition. This forced me to ask: Do I really want to do this? The whole concept suddenly seemed so daunting. I overcame this by watching the people who know best what to do, who perform small miracles every day, simply by being kind. Their sheer patience and goodness gave me hope.
Are these folks superhuman? Not at all. They have the same fears and foibles as the rest of us. But they strongly believe that everyone deserves a chance to prosper. Also, they consider themselves no better than those they strive to help, and no worse. It is this quality especially, I think, that makes them so effective.
A few years ago, I met one of these people in a mountainous region of southern Mexico. Her name was Francis Mendez, and she worked for a microfinance agency called Alternativa Solidaria, or Al-Sol. This organization lends small amounts of cash to Mayan women to run cottage industries, giving them a source of income and—much more vitally—an identity outside the typical indigenous existence of planting, weeding, and harvesting crops; caring for the children; cooking, cleaning, tending the animals; and—there’s no end to the toil.
Francis was Mayan, too. She’d managed to learn Spanish and finish an eighth-grade education, which enabled her to be a loan officer. She didn’t have even close to the qualifications to hold a job at an American aid agency. Her most important assets, her patience and compassion, weren’t something that could be listed on a resume. But they were what most helped her help others.
Francis and I met with her clients in four villages. Some of the women were utterly charming. Some were stern and not very friendly. They lived in settlements so remote that interactions with foreigners like me were exceedingly uncommon.
At our last stop, four of these women kindly allowed me to take a rare picture of them. I consider this image a precious gift, meant for me alone. In it the women stare at me somberly, their dark hair coiled tightly against their scalps, their long dark skirts and bright, hand-embroidered blouses ruffled by the mountain wind. Francis stands smiling beside them, the only one for whom this is not a highly unusual event.
When I look at the photo, I understand exactly how helping others is giving me back my life.
Francis believed in these women, perhaps more than they believed in themselves. Through her they became something beyond washerwomen and nursemaids. They became artisans and entrepreneurs. Every month when she met with them, Francis praised them and encouraged them, answered their questions, and helped them obtain the tools to succeed. She connected with them at a level deeper than words can describe.
Francis loved her work. Her relationships with her clients nourished her. Being with her, watching her, nourished me. The feeling that grows from such shared love travels beyond the women and into their villages, through their mountains, and beyond, far beyond. There are no limits to its reach. Seeing it unspool, feeling its touch, how could I help but begin healing?