As I See It: To Serve, To Strive, And Not To Yield
July 23, 2012 Victor Rozek
She arrived at the dining room as she always did, carrying a baby doll. The woman, like the doll she clutched, was damaged; her appearance shabby, her demeanor distant. She waited her turn in line, acknowledged a greeting from the doorman with a slight nod of her head, and shuffled in looking about for a place to sit. . . .
Stephen Covey, he of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, died last week of complications from a bicycle accident. At age 79, he lost control of his bike on a steep hill. Happily, one of his habits included wearing a bike helmet; sadly, it wasn’t effective enough to save his life. No theory is perfect.
When it was first published in 1989, The Seven Habits was a self-help game changer. Covey parlayed it into a consulting and motivational speaking empire. For over two decades, he ministered to a generation of ambitious people yearning to be highly effective. Covey combined traditional admonitions with a strong dose of ethics and a sprinkle of New Age philosophy. Roughly grouped, his first six habits are equally divided between steps guaranteed to achieve self-mastery, and compelling arguments for valuing interdependence. But, like many self-help tomes, just reading about all that striving can be exhausting. Which may account for Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw.
Sharpening the saw refers to self care. Covey writes about creating balance and renewal as a means of maintaining an energetic, healthy, sustainable lifestyle. His suggestions for physical and mental renewal are what you might expect: exercise, yoga, meditation. But what I most remember from reading the book 20 years ago was his recommendation for spiritual renewal: service.
Back then, I was too self-absorbed to give much thought to service. Finding spiritual replenishment through serving others sounded like a recipe for more work. I remember being vaguely annoyed at the suggestion. My idea of spiritual renewal was being alone in nature. People were the source of my depletion, and volunteering to help more people seemed counterintuitive and counterproductive.
Things changed when a colleague called and invited me to an event she was hosting. She proposed to gather 25 or so friends to begin a series of discussions on how we could–as a group and as individuals–give back to the community. I had attempted something similar about 10 years ago without much success, so I attended more out of politeness than enthusiasm. But success is often dependent on timing, and on this occasion the timing was right. We began our discussion by identifying who our community heroes were, which causes might be deserving of our attention, and what skills we had to offer. It was then I remembered Covey.
The people who gathered had at least three things in common: we each had successful careers and much to be grateful for. And, we all wanted more from life than work alone could provide. Not all, but many came from IT ranks. IT professionals, it turns out, are in a unique position to help non-profit organizations. Almost everyone has computer issues, from setting up new PCs, to developing customized software, to networking an office, to sprucing up their web presence, to taking full advantage of social networking. Community non-profits, those vibrant enough to have survived the long economic decline, typically excel at what they do, but few have reliable IT support. They limp along with a hodge-podge of donated equipment, antiquated software, and no cohesive IT strategy. To be sure, funding is always an issue, so it becomes even more important to maximize the potential of available resources.
Two of my community heroes are women I know. One heads a group that combats the use of carcinogens and other toxics. The organization is struggling to develop a workable strategy for communicating with its members. Too many choices have created a quandary. Phone calls, email, texting, Facebook, Twitter, and mailers are just some of the options. Not all members monitor all modalities. Each has a personal preference, but it is very labor intensive to fill each of those pipes with data, and most people don’t want to be bombarded by multiple messages. The staff is being forced to spend more screen time, and therefore less time working on actual issues. To date they haven’t identified an elegant solution.
The other woman runs a restaurant for the homeless, which is where I first saw the woman clutching the doll. Locally, the restaurant is known as The Dining Room. It serves 300 nutritious dinners a day in safe, pleasant, clean surroundings, staffed by a combination of employees and volunteers. The restaurant is part of a much larger undertaking that provides food to the hungry in the entire county. A large warehouse accepts donations of 40,000 pounds of food each day, which is distributed to the needy. The entire process was manually controlled until three months ago when an automated inventory and distribution system was finally installed. The restaurant would like to develop a computerized diner tracking system.
I was invited to observe the operation so that I might better understand the daily challenges encountered by the staff. As I discovered, the invitation was designed to help me understand not only what needed to be done, but for whom.
. . . The woman had been on the streets most of her adult life. About 20 years ago, she gave birth to a child that authorities planned to take from her because of her homeless status. Desperate to keep her baby, she took the infant and fled the hospital. But the child was not healthy, and shortly thereafter died. She carried the dead baby for some time before authorities found her. They took the child and left her standing in the street. Another homeless woman found a doll in a trash bin and gave it to the grieving mother. She has been carrying it ever since.
There are as many sad stories as there are diners. Some are on medication; others should be and aren’t. Many people carry a weapon. Many use drugs. Others have mental health issues. The work of feeding them is unpredictable; communication can be challenging. The staff has dealt with everything from fights to heart attacks and seizures. Still, everyone is treated with respect and regular diners are greeted by name. But what impressed me most was that the volunteers and the staff, in spite of laughable pay and difficult working conditions, looked proud and re-energized, and they appeared to be uncommonly happy. It was as clear an example of Covey’s spiritual renewal through service as I could hope to find.
The great humanitarian Albert Schweitzer observed: “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”
The opportunities are endless, and the need is great. Volunteerism and civic engagement have a long and proud tradition, and IT professionals have uniquely valuable skills to offer in support of that tradition. Covey reminded us that “interdependency follows independence.” Certainly, the first half of my life was focused on acquiring a degree of independence and autonomy. The project of chiseling a self from the stone of experience was all consuming. As Covey noted, “you must first master yourself before you can become a servant to others.”
Gradually, however, independence–that most persistent of illusions–receded, and I could see the grand vista of human pain and suffering crying out for attention. However daunting the task, I found that there is great joy in attending to even a tiny fragment of that human landscape.