Today we applaud the volunteers who are preparing to receive the Joan of Arc Medallion in the near future, and we acknowledge their accomplishments characterized by determination and dedication to task. They have attained a confident sense of self by developing their talents and moral character and by giving of themselves and their time to others. Today we take time to honor them for the success they have achieved in their progress on life’s journey, and for the joy they have contributed to the lives of those whom they have served.
It is my honor to have this special opportunity to offer a message to them and to all of us gathered here to celebrate volunteer service. My message can be summarized in a single word: OTHERS. God has told us that it is not good for us to be alone, and so He has given us companions who join us on the way. Thus, we must always consider others as they travel with us through life.
Throughout life, we are members of many communities. We quickly learn that the key to living together with others is to seek the common good of all…to look beyond self-interest and to work for the general conditions which contribute to everyone’s growth and advantage. The balance we seek between self-interest and the common good is found in Jesus’ great commandment: “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself”, and again: “Love others as I have loved you”. These commandments lead us to seek social justice and to work for the good of all, especially those most in need. Commitment to this moral social agenda brings out our better selves as we engage in kindness, compassion and service.
As we encounter and embrace others, we recognize that their good should be of concern to us. Their needs will be our concern if we try to imagine ourselves walking in their shoes, and if we try to see things from their perspective. This insight can be applied to every relationship on our journey. When we try to understand where others are coming from, we ask: What motivates them? What life experiences have they had? What factors and values have shaped their thinking? What do they need to live more fully? As we ask these questions, we find that our solutions and choices become clearer. We can then incorporate an understanding of others into our decisions, into our leadership style, into our world view, but especially into our acts and life of service.
Marion Anderson, whom we know from her outstanding operatic career, once said: “Leadership should be born out of understanding the needs of those who would be affected by it”. We can apply her statement to service: Service should be born out of understanding the needs of those who would be affected by it. Life has a higher purpose than self-satisfaction, and that is responsibility to and for others. Leadership, too, has a higher purpose than personal gain, and that is responsibility to and for others. A leader who embodies this understanding is one who leads others through service to them…one who is a servant leader.
An age-old ethical tenet is to “do to others as you would have them do to you”, or, in the negative, “do not do to others what you would not have them do to you”. How simple a rule for servant leadership! It translates into understanding the needs and abilities of others; sympathizing with them in their crises and other ‘downs’; celebrating their successes and other ‘ups’; motivating and encouraging them when they need a ‘push’; modeling behaviors by personal example when they need a ‘pull’; setting reasonable but challenging expectations and standards when they need goals; and directing them toward achievement and performance when they seek self-actualization. Such a theory and practice of servant leadership includes ‘being there’ for those we lead and serve. It assumes caring about them as persons as we lead them to higher achievement.
The ancient philosophers claimed that humans share a common nature, and that we all ‘wonder’ about who and what we are, what we need, what we value, how we live together, and other questions related to our humanness. If we are essentially the same (in a philosophical sense: that is, if we have the same essence or nature), then learning about ourselves is related to learning about others, and learning about others is related to learning about ourselves.
One thing we know about our human nature is that it is grounded in reason, in the ability to think and to know, and especially to know truth. The center of thinking is the ‘mind’. We also recognize that we are beings who live in anticipation of a future and with the ability to change that future by the choices we make. The center of choice is the ‘will’. And finally, we realize that we are beings capable of relationships, of reaching out to others. While this human capacity is centered in emotion, it is grounded in both the intellect and the will. Hence our human nature is shaped by three complimentary elements: reason, will and emotion. Reason is often linked with faith; will is often linked with hope; and emotion is often linked with love…and the symbol of love is usually the heart. St. Paul tells us in his epistles that the chief virtues are “faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love”. In the Greek language, there are at least three words for ‘love’: eros, which is carnal love; ‘philos’ which is intellectual love; and ‘agape’ which is brotherly love…love of others beyond love of self. It is this love which is called the ‘greatest’ love, for it is out of this love that one is willing to lay down one’s life for another. That ‘laying down’ of life is either through dying for another, or dying to self-centeredness for the good of another. This can be interpreted as a daily giving of self, not a one-time sacrifice of living. It is love which brings faith and hope together and gives them meaning. It is love which provides the total perspective on our humanity and our total experience of it. To focus on only one aspect of our human nature as defining us (such as emphasizing reason alone, or will alone, or emotion alone) distorts the reality of our wholeness. For example, to know the truth or the good through reason and not to choose to act on it creates in us a short-coming. Similarly, to know that we are connected with others and that we share some responsibility for each other, but not to act on that truth by willing service to others is also a short-coming.
To be willing to embrace others in their need…in their physical, mental or spiritual need…should be part of our total response to our existence and our life’s mission. It springs from knowledge of who we are, from the ability to make good choices, and from the capacity to love God and to love others as we love ourselves. Such a commitment is life-long, not episodic. It is a way of life, not a check-off list of isolated obligations or service requirements for badges, graduation, job advancement or even medallions. And it is not an individual achievement. It embraces others in a mutually beneficial relationship and it encourages witnesses to volunteer acts to do likewise…to pass it on.
At Carlow University, we believe that servant leaders transform society through their commitment to serving and mentoring others, through their integrity and compassion, through their ability to bring people together and to influence behavior, through their willingness to build positive relationships and through their active demonstration of the values they espouse. However, the transformation to which servant leaders aspire cannot be imposed on our society; it often must infiltrate it. Transformational servant leadership is difficult since there are many whom we reach out to serve who choose not to be transformed, and there are those in society who are suspicious of leaders who espouse serving others as a characteristic of their leadership style.
At Carlow, we celebrate the dignity of each person through the development of mind, body and spirit…the whole person. We believe that genuine self-fulfillment is the actualization of the whole person: the physical, the rational, the spiritual and the moral in a social context. The servant leader must be true to herself as an ethical and social person, grounded in reason and guided by conscience. This requires a commitment to values, courage in times of challenge, compassion in working with others, and respect for the contributions of all. Servant leaders motivate by example, persuade by communication, empower by acknowledging the success of others, and create other servant leaders by example.
The word ‘volunteer’ comes from the Latin root ‘voluntas’ which means ‘to be willing’. Volunteers are willing to be engaged, to act on their beliefs and values, to go beyond themselves and their self-interest to serve others. Servant leaders and volunteers have learned that finding meaning in our lives will always involve others. They understand that life is not about ‘me’ but about ‘us’. Our greatest joys, deepest sorrows, most noble deeds, greatest challenges, most satisfying achievements, will always be linked to others, either directly or indirectly. For those who believe and act on the principle that leadership and service are more about others than about self, it is important to seek to understand the others with and for whom they work and serve. The volunteers/servant leaders we honor today know this, and have responded by providing the gift that keeps on giving. Their service creates a ripple effect in their own lives, in the lives of those they serve, and in the lives of those who observe and are influenced by these acts of service.
They have contributed many hours in volunteer service to others and in supporting causes to help those in need. They have understood that serving others is our human mission, and that our lives will be judged by how well we fulfill that mission.
I congratulate all volunteers and servant leaders for the courage they have demonstrated in accepting the challenge to change their world for the better through their unique acts of caring for others as they seek a more just and merciful world for all. We witness today the good these assembled volunteers/servant leaders have done. We commit to continue this good work of caring about and for others. In our relationships, we should always consider this play on the letters of the word OTHERS: treat others with Openness, Thankfulness, Helpfulness, Empathy, Respect and Service.
The Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi guides us in our relationships with others: “Where there is hatred, sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Seek to understand and love others.” We know that in giving of ourselves generously to others, we receive abundant blessing, especially the blessing of being God’s instrument of peace in our world…a world which desperately needs peace-makers…one relationship at a time, one act of service at a time.
Only when we live for others, will we live fully… faith-fully and joy-fully.
-- Dr. Mary Hines, President, Carlow University