Thursday, November 13, 2008

Serve Yourself

"Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time." ~ Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm, earned a degree in elementary education and ran a day care for some years before becoming the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1972, she ran for the Presidency "in spite of hopeless odds," as she put it, "to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo." In other words, she didn't just talk about service, she put her money and her energy and her reputation and her commitment where her mouth was. There is much we could learn from her example.

As you know from my frequent whining, I spend a lot of my time overburdened and overwhelmed. I keep it like that. And while there have been times in my life when I was dodging reality by doing this, and while there have been other times in my life when I think I was just doing this from sheer habit, it's different now. I'm serving. And aware of it. But, of course, I still whine. Or brag. What's the difference?

Anyway, the point is, I've been thinking of late about the benefits I enjoy by the accident of nature or design that put me in the U.S. born to my college-educated parents in this skin with this brain at this point in history. I'm not high-rolling by a long shot, but I eat pretty much what I want or at least I don't go without food. I have four rooms all my own plus a bathroom with a flush toilet that works all the time. I have drinkable water coming out of three different faucets and take a hot shower whenever I like. I can flick a switch and get adequate light or heat or air conditioning at will.

I have a job paying a living wage. I have a car that runs pretty well almost all the time (even if it looks a little funky). I can buy clothes when I need them and boots just because I want to. I can get what I need to manage my diabetes without worrying about it. I belong to a gym and I already have my plane ticket to go see my daughter in New York City for Christmas where I will spend fifty dollars just getting from the airport to her apartment in Manhattan. I buy books -- albeit used -- on a regular basis. I can occasionally spend forty bucks on dinner without more than a pause (and have been known to spend more on very special days). I bought new flannel pajamas when the old ones got too big. I have a few pieces of art just because. I can afford to send money to feed street kids in Haiti or regularly help sustain the work of my local NAACP chapter or pick up the tab for a student's dinner. And I have ready access to two computers (just for me), the internet, services beyond any rational limit, and a ridiculous variety of almost any product you can imagine.

In addition, I can expect that, under most circumstances, I will not be stopped or arrested by the police for no reason, I will get a more or less fair shake in court, and I will not be followed around a store to make sure I don't shoplift. I don't have to be concerned that I might be snatched up by mistake and deported. My skin tone won't keep me out of a job, should I need one. And most of the time, I will be treated with respect I may, quite frankly, not have earned.

I mean, life is good. For those like me.

But I am incredibly aware that it's not like this for everybody. Increasingly, it's not like this for many, many people. Even right around the corner from me.

My point? Well, according to Shirley Chisholm, I owe for this. There's a bill. Just as surely as the one I pay with my debit card -- and without thinking -- at the restaurant table or the cash register or the toll booth or on the internet. Only you can't pay it with a debit card (though money, too, can be useful in a wide range of positive ways).

But when push comes to shove, I owe with my body. With my brain. And with my time.

This whining I do, this feeling overburdened and overwhelmed, needs to go. I am rolling in wealth, comparatively speaking. I am surrounded by beauty and joy. I am awash in the best of so much of what life offers that I really must just say thank you and ante up in every way I can and look for more opportunities. THIS is what is meant by you reap what you sow. THIS is what is meant by the more you give, the more you receive. THIS is what is meant by whatever measure you use to give will be used in measuring what you get back. It's NOT cash money the way the evangelists (hungry for their cut) suggest. It's our lives we owe. And absolutely worth it.

It's a great thing, in my opinion, that Barack Obama was elected to the U.S. Presidency, but that doesn't get anybody off the hook. If we expect one human being to fix this mess (which every one of us has helped to create either by what we do or what we haven't done), if we imagine that one human being can somehow magically turn this ship around, we are still living in la-la land. Let's make it happen. Let's change the world. Yes, we can. Yes, I can. Yes, I will.


Macon D said...

But but but, what about affirmative action?!

This was a great post. I think it's a valuable reminder to take stock like this. People, or anyway the Americans I know, always look up the ladder instead of down. An "average" life in the seat of empire is incredibly "rich" in material terms compared to most of the world's people. In spiritual terms? And other terms? Probably not so much.

Yes, there is still so much work to do, and yes! I think "payback" is a great way to think of it.

Anonymous said...

This post reminds me of the topic of white privilege and the fact that it is so embedded in society it just can't be avoided. I feel as though it is something which needs to be pushed in one of two directions: use it to one's advantage to accomplish things and give back to the community, or completely try to eradicate it from society (may be near impossible).

Changeseeker said...

Macon, you are a funny, funny guy. :^) And you have no idea how gratifying it is to me that someone I respect SO much takes the time to check in the way you do. Thank you for your consistency, your clarity, and your support.

Anonymous, how about doing both? And thanks for dropping by.

Dani said...

I've been reading your wonderful thoughts for quite some time now, and you always inspire me with your insight. This post has inspired me so much, if you don't mind I'm going to read parts of it at the Investiture ceremony for the Brownie troop I lead. It's my first year as a troop leader, and my reasons for joining are part of paying that very bill of service. You hit home with this post.

The things you said here my Brownie's might not grasp entirely, but I think their parents might. :-)

Thank you so much for YOUR service.

Changeseeker said...

What a lovely comment to start my day, Dani! I'm glad you like my post and very pleased that you have a use for it. I remember the brownie troop I was in when I was little. And you're probably right that the girls might not fully get it, but serving those parents will serve the girls until they do. ;^) Thanks for the work YOU'RE doing.