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Making the switch

| Friday, January 21, 2022

“Service” is one of those words that typically evokes supportive sentiments. It’s almost universally regarded as positive to serve one’s community, and most people would consider volunteering to be a hallmark activity of a civic-minded person. Growing up, volunteering and doing service were essential to our development into conscious citizens and gaining a broader understanding of the world. Like many of you, I too had service hour requirements in elementary and high school and have filled out countless applications that contain service sections asking how I have served my community. Even to get into college and various graduate schools, volunteering has been a key aspect of many of our applications.

As I have grown older, however, the word “service” and our societal view of it have taken on a distasteful tone to me. The original intention of performing “service” was to familiarize ourselves with the situations of struggling members of our communities, but it has come to have quite the opposite effect — an effect of othering.

I find myself wary of the word “service” because we might confuse it with solidarity, of which it often falls short. The financially secure are at liberty to weave in and out of the world of need at whim with nothing to lose and feelings of self-satisfaction to gain. When we volunteer, we step out of our sphere of comfort for a predetermined period of time, venturing out into the world of less fortune, all the while being able to plunge back into the safety of our own whenever we wish.

I became keenly aware of this privilege and attitude one summer morning when I, with my head down and pace elevated, slipped past a man curled up on the street corner waving a piece of cardboard that read, “Down on my luck and hungry. Anything helps.” Just the day before, I had supposedly been “serving” people in similar shoes at the local homeless center. Did my care from the previous day absolve me of my ignorance that day? Did I really regard this man, and all other unhoused people, as having the same dignity as myself? Yet I had convinced myself that my “service” was sufficient to their struggle — that I was doing my part.

Though we might sincerely seek to bridge gaps in our society, we seem to simultaneously accept there are to be eternal gulfs between ourselves and people in need, that they will always be “other” to us in some sense. While we feel real sympathy for the struggles of the homeless, hungry, helpless and oppressed, we are only interested in combating them when we deliberately place ourselves in an environment designed to do so, such as a volunteer organization. We’re champions of the poor from nine to noon once a week, but when the clock strikes twelve and our volunteer shift ends, their plight no longer pains us, it seems.

Service is a temporary condition through which we can provide some extra goodness to the world on our own time. Solidarity, on the other hand, is an enduring disposition through which we have an active obligation to work for justice and amplify the cries of our neighbors in need at all times. To truly be a force for good in the world, our aim must be solidarity, rather than service. Within the bounds of service, it’s nice for me to help people in need, a bonus action. But within the bounds of solidarity, it’s morally incumbent on me to do so. We are called to make the switch from the mindset of service to one of solidarity.

We cannot compartmentalize compassion, flipping it on and off like a switch once or twice a week. It is a frame of mind and way of life we must adopt in its entirety. We must not engage with a community in need and then later ignore it or extend our hand in the shelter and then retract it on the street, confining our concern to a convenient time and space. Our choice in life is either continuous compassion or flippant fellowship.

Schools and competitive positions will continue to ask us to document our acts of service, and clubs and associations will continue to have community service requirements which we will continue to fulfill for the prestige of being a part of them. This isn’t necessarily bad. There is certainly a need for volunteers to operate a number of programs that help people get by, and I understand that organizations must have some concrete way of assessing the civic-mindedness of their applicants. But we must make the switch from viewing volunteering as an extra activity for which we deserve praise to integrating it into our daily lives as a responsibility.

We cannot pick and choose when to show solidarity with those struggling. Inconsistent commitment is as good as neglect. Persistent problems require persistent resolve in order to solve them. Like a doctor on call or an emergency department tending to patients all night, compassion has no clock.

Don’t step up to the counter at the homeless center to serve one day and then sidestep homeless people the next. Don’t listen to their stories with sympathy on Friday then pretend you can’t hear their pleas for help on Saturday. Don’t greet them with a gleam in your eye one week, then avert their gaze the week after. All these things, I have done — because it’s easy to bask in the comfort of service, feeling as though we did good for the day and then returning home to our normal lives where we get to forget about the struggles to which we were previously tending. We must exchange the privilege of service for the duty of solidarity. It won’t be a comfortable change, but it’s time we make the switch.


A former resident of Lyons Hall, Eva Analitis is a senior majoring in political science and pre-health. Even though she often can’t make up her own mind, that won’t stop her from trying to change yours. She can be reached at [email protected] or @evaanalitis on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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