The Donelan Office’s Director, Michelle Sterk Barrett, offered the following remarks at Burncoat High School’s National Honor Society induction on March 30th.
Thank you for the very kind introduction, Stephanie, and thank you to Ms. Suprenant and Mr. Foley for the opportunity to be here with you tonight. Congratulations to each of you for achieving at the level that has enabled you to be inducted into the National Honor Society on this very special evening. Your induction into NHS is a testament to your hard work, perseverance, and strong character. It’s also a testament to the fact that you are fortunate to have been graced with noteworthy talents and skills that have gotten you to this moment. Whether you are naturally brilliant or simply a hard worker who perseveres through academic challenges until you succeed, you have something remarkable to offer our world. I hope you will view your gifts and talents in exactly that way—as something remarkable to be generously shared with the world.
In looking at the National Honor Society’s website it describes itself as “the nation’s premier organization established to recognize outstanding high school students. More than just an honor roll, NHS serves to recognize those students who have demonstrated excellence in the areas of scholarship, service, leadership, and character.” While all four of the NHS goals are important, I would like to focus on one particular aspect of the NHS vision: service.
As someone who has worked over 20 years in the field of service-learning, I’ve spent much time thinking about the questions that surround service. Questions such as: What motivates one to serve? What exactly is service? How can one serve well? I’d like to spend the next few minutes sharing my thoughts and reflections related to those questions.
I’ve seen many motivations for service. Often it begins as a requirement expected by one’s high school, one’s church, or one’s parents. It may sometimes continue because of the benefits it can provide in the college admissions process or by the experience it can add to a newly developing resume. While the initial motives may not be entirely selfless, I’ve witnessed people powerfully impacted by service—regardless of their initial motivation.
One of the many reasons why I think service can be so powerful is because of the way in which it has the potential to restore humanity to all involved—both the person who might have initially been thought of as the “client” to be served and the person who might have initially been thought of as the volunteer doing the service.
In a world that can be so isolating and individualistic…one in which we often interact with people via screens as much as we do in person… service can heal and can show us a more authentic and meaningful path through life. It can show us how interconnected we all our to one another as human beings. It can help us learn how to give love and receive love better.
Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, wrote a book entitled The Gifts of Imperfection, in which she discusses how recent research in biology and neuroscience demonstrates that we are hardwired for connection and that we have an innate need for this. She points out, however, that the messages we are sent about what it means to be successful in our society often do not reinforce this importance of connectedness. On the contrary, these messages regularly emphasize the importance of individual self-sufficiency and this can eventually lead all of us to increased separation and isolation from one another.
I think these messages about what it means to be successful have become particularly warped in the way they have been conveyed to your generation. At the time Ms. Suprenant was taking my class, I was reading a book by William Deresiewicz called Excellent Sheep. He’s a former professor at Yale who writes a thought-provoking cultural critique of the way in which young adults are being raised to believe that their value is in their accomplishments: grades, test scores, trophies, and other measurable outcomes or credentials. He says that from this vantage point, “The purpose of life becomes the accumulation of gold stars.” (p. 16).
Both of these authors point out how the culture in which young adults are currently being raised contrasts sharply with what researchers point out we innately desire as human beings. It leads us to see others as the competition and our individual success as primary.
Service, on the other hand, is all about recognizing our interdependence and interconnectedness as humans. Service suggests that we should not think individualistically about what is in our own best interest on a path to success, but consider the needs of others as equal to our own. Service asks us to give ourselves away by loving and valuing others in the same way that we want to be valued and loved. The great irony of service is that in choosing to put others first, in choosing to love openly, we often find a path to greater fulfillment, meaning, and purpose for ourselves.
Ultimately, service stops being something that we go out and do elsewhere, but becomes a habit, a way of life, something that is so central to one’s being that it is integrated with every action and every choice one makes. This way in which service can be integrated into everyday life is illustrated so clearly by parents and guardians as they do not go somewhere else to do service, but do it consistently through preparing meals, changing diapers, assisting with homework, driving to activities, etc.
One of the most beautiful examples I’ve seen of a person who has integrated service into his whole way of being is Fr. Greg Boyle. He’s a Jesuit priest who lives in the Los Angeles area and runs a non-profit called Homeboy Industries that provides job training to young men and women who have formerly been involved in gangs. He does not frame the work he does as service, but as kinship. He says that kinship is standing with others as equals; not serving the other, but being with the other. Remembering that we belong to each other… Finding room for those who have been left out rather than judging them as unworthy of being let in. He counters the shame that is so prevalent in the young men and women he works with. Shame that results from believing that they are not worthy of love because of feeling rejected by their parents, their neighborhoods, or their society. A shame that he says, “permeates to the marrow of the soul.” He seeks to love unconditionally in order to restore people’s belief in their own worth and help them to recognize they are valued as human beings.
Please allow me a moment to share a story from his book, Tattoos on the Heart, that illustrates the beautiful way in which he serves. He tells the story of an urgent phone call he received at 3 a.m. from one of the youth he worked with: Cesar. Cesar says, “I gotta ask you a question. You know how I’ve always seen you as my father-ever since I was a little kid. Well I hafta ask you a question.” Now Cesar pauses, and the gravity of it all makes his voice waver and crumble as he asks, “Have I…been…your son?” Oh, yes, Fr. Boyle explains. Cesar exhales with a deep sigh of relief as he says, “I thought so.” “Now his voice becomes enmeshed in a cadence of gentle sobbing” (p. 31). Fr. Boyle explains that, “in this early morning call Cesar did not discover that he has a father. He discovered that he is a son worth having…and he felt himself beloved” (p. 31).
Now, we won’t all serve in the exact same way with the exact same population as Fr. Boyle does. But, he does offer us a model worth following in many ways. The way he treats all people as equally worthy of dignity. The way in which he restores connectedness to those who feel disconnected. The way in which he uses his particular unique talents and gifts to live authentically. These are things that each of us can do no matter where we work or where we live.
One of the most important things for you to consider as you look towards the future is how can I serve in my everyday life? It is important that you not think of service as something you do only when you can fit in a planned visit to a non-profit. Service should not be a separate activity done elsewhere, but should be how you choose to live your life in each moment. You serve when you love those around you. You serve when you think of the needs of others as equal to your own. You serve by authentically and confidently sharing who you are with the world rather than trying to be who you think others want you to be. You serve by developing your gifts, talents, and academic abilities to their fullest so they can contribute to making our world a better place.
I leave you tonight with two very important questions to ponder: First, how will you continue to live the ideals of the National Honor Society for a lifetime by integrating excellence in scholarship, service, leadership and character in all that you do? Second, how will you become the best possible version of yourself by fully developing and utilizing your unique talents and gifts in service to your family, your neighborhood, and our world?
Boyle, Gregory. (2011). Tatoos on the heart: The power of boundless compassion.
New York, NY: Free Press.
Brown, Brené. The gifts of imperfection. Center City, MN: Hazelton.
Deresiewicz, William. Excellent sheep. New York, NY: Free Press.