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When we consider how best to serve others, it helps to remember that we can rise to the level we set for ourselves—that whatever service we render ought to be performed to the very best of our abilities.
While striving for excellence in all that we do, the sincerest form of service is that which is offered in a spirit of humility. To be useful is gratifying, but our efforts to help others should be free from any desire for self-aggrandizement, recognition, or sense of superiority. Prestige is a notion that is based on social beliefs, not on reality.
For example, modern society holds medical doctors in high esteem because they study healing methods for years, they are paid well, and they deal with important matters of life and death. Oftentimes when your health is in great peril, the skills and knowledge of a doctor are essential to cure your ailment or heal your injury. For these reasons we entrust our health care to them and seek them out when we are sick.
Garbage collectors, however, are not nearly so highly regarded. Many view the job of a garbage collector as necessary but undesirable because it disposes of our refuse, the items that we don’t want to deal with anymore. Every day, however, garbage collectors remove and dispose of tons of potentially dangerous materials, thereby ensuring that thousands of people will not fall ill. Garbage collecting is, in fact, far more proactive than traditional medicine in the prevention of disease. On one hand, the majority of medical doctors are not in the business of prevention because they endeavor to treat us only after we have become ill. Garbage collectors, on the other hand, perform their service before we get sick by preventing the potential spread of disease. So which profession is worthier of prestige and respect? They could be regarded as equal, because both doctor and garbage collector serve the world and in so doing serve each other:
Direct your whole effort toward the happiness of those who are despondent, bestow food upon the hungry, clothe the needy, and glorify the humble. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 469.
Let them [all human beings] purify their sight and behold all humankind as leaves and blossoms and fruits of the tree of being. Let them at all times concern themselves with doing a kindly thing for one of their fellows, offering to someone love, consideration, thoughtful help. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 1.
Any work that one does in life, not just volunteer work, can be pursued with a spirit of service. Any profession, whether seen as prestigious or lowly, merits praise if it exists to serve others. Our intentions, efforts, and achievements are all factors in our service to others. To serve effectively we need to be pure-hearted in our intentions, industrious in our efforts, and humble in our achievements.
Placing too much emphasis on outcomes can be disappointing. It is good to be successful, but often the outcome of a situation is beyond our control. Being overly focused on results and the bottom line may be the driving factors in corporations and capitalism, but they have little to do with true altruistic service. If we value only the outcome and not the efforts, then the adage “the ends justify the means” makes logical sense. However, experience has repeatedly demonstrated that those of us who follow this rationale are ultimately judged both by the selfishness of our hearts and by what our hands have wrought. Our intentions are the one thing in life over which we have complete control, especially when we endeavor to help each other. They are part of a sequence of steps leading to effective service.
The first step in any plan for effective service should be to begin with prayer, for it is always spiritually beneficial to pray and reflect upon the needs of the situation in which we hope to serve. This helps us to remain selfless in our intentions. Next we must draw upon our resolve and volition, and finally we must act to carry out our plan, confident that whatever the result may be, it is the will of God.
It is incumbent upon every man of insight and understanding to strive to translate that which hath been written into reality and action. … That one indeed is a man who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race. The Great Being saith: Blessed and happy is he that ariseth to promote the best interests of the peoples and kindreds of the earth. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 250.
As a framework for our intentions and an outline for our service to others, the following excerpt from Baha’i scripture is among the best spiritual advice ever given:
Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity. Be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor, and look upon him with a bright and friendly face. Be a treasure to the poor, an admonisher to the rich, an answerer of the cry of the needy, a preserver of the sanctity of thy pledge. Be fair in thy judgment, and guarded in thy speech. Be unjust to no man, and show all meekness to all men. Be as a lamp unto them that walk in darkness, a joy to the sorrowful, a sea for the thirsty, a haven for the distressed, an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression. Let integrity and uprightness distinguish all thine acts. Be a home for the stranger, a balm to the suffering, a tower of strength for the fugitive. Be eyes to the blind, and a guiding light unto the feet of the erring. Be an ornament to the countenance of truth, a crown to the brow of fidelity, a pillar of the temple of righteousness, a breath of life to the body of mankind, an ensign of the hosts of justice, a luminary above the horizon of virtue, a dew to the soil of the human heart, an ark on the ocean of knowledge, a sun in the heaven of bounty, a gem on the diadem of wisdom, a shining light in the firmament of thy generation, a fruit upon the tree of humility. – Ibid., p. 285.