Unification News for December 2001
Living for the Sake of Others: Passing This on to Future Generations
Kathy Winings, EdD
Dr. Winings is a specialist in the area of service learning and has authored a new book on character and service learning.
"Hello, this is IRFF, where living for the sake of others is a way of life!" This is the message that greets you when you call the IRFF office. Because living for the sake of others is a central tenet of our faith as Unificationists, it is a phrase that is heard on an almost daily basis. Nor is this concept held exclusively by Unificationism. Most of the worldís faiths will affirm that service, unselfishness, or giving to others is a characteristic of a good or spiritually mature person.
Yet, as much as we talk about living for the sake of others, do we really know how we can pass this ethic along to our children? Do we really know how we can make it a meaningful experience from which others learn? I have found that many of us believe that the only thing our children and teens need to do is simply sign up for a service project and then living for others will become a natural part of their life. Just do it; just experience it. Isnít it enough that our youth simply experience something? Wonít that be enough for them to find profound meaning in the experience and so make it a clear part of their lives? Or isnít it enough that they see us, their parents, living this ethic? Well, it would be nice to say "yes," but it isnít so simple.
If all of us lived in a society that followed the ethic of living for the sake of others, then I would say "yes" it is as simple as just doing it. We would be surrounded on all sides by those for whom service would naturally foster recognition and reflection of who we are as children of God. Unfortunately, we all know that this is not the case. Our neighbors, acquaintances and co-workers are becoming increasingly self-absorbed. Our current generation of teens and young adults have learned to exemplify the "me" generation attitude to new heights. Just sit and watch the commercials on television for the next 60 minutes to see how this is reinforced. To be coolbuy this; to get ahead of everyone in your schoolyou need this; relax, be happyyou deserve it! Be this one in your school to have this product. Donít worry about otherslook out for number 1.
Fortunately, this isnít the only message out there. Sociological studies and ethnographic surveys show that since 1990, more teens and college students are engaged in community service and volunteerism than any previous generation. That is excellent news. More good news indicates that community service and volunteerism are celebrated and encouraged through the increasing number of scholarships and awards for graduating high school seniors across the United States. During this past year I met a young woman who earned over $15,000 in college scholarships for her community service work. And we saw literally thousands of men, women, and teens volunteer during the World Trade Center tragedy. All of this points to the fact that the U.N. was right to make this the "Year of the Volunteer."
Yet, if this is true, why are we still seeing the high rates of consumerism, individualism, violence, and apathy? One would think that with these increasing numbers of activists in addition to the increasing number of organizations that handle the large numbers of volunteers, that we would begin to see a change for the better in our communities, schools, and cities. But, the sad fact is that we are not seeing much improvement. While there are complex reasons for this, a major reason is that, while community service is a wonderful experience, it does not go far enough. Those who engage in service work do not have the opportunity to bring closure to their experience; they donít close the circle of the experience, so to speak, through service alone.
So, what is missing from this picture? It is the connection of theory and practice. It is the opportunity to consider why one is serving, what one is learning from the experience, and how this relates to who we are as sons and daughters of God. It is the one thing that brings word and deed together into a coherent and focused picture. In other words, what is missing is the chance to reflect on our experience. This is the meaning of service learning.
Service learning is the beginning of true service work. It really is a more advanced and principled understanding of volunteerism and it is an idea whose time has come. How does service learning work? If one is first beginning to work with service learning, it is easier to break it down into three simple steps: reflection which prepares you for the project, reflection to help you as you work on the project, and reflection that will encourage you to draw insights from the experience.
Beginning Your Service Project
Before you begin the service project, your experience will be enriched if you take the time to reflect on what it is you are going to be doing and why. Religious Youth Service, RYS, uses this time to guide the participants of the project to look at their own expectations, images, and vision of what it is they are going to be doing. Often times, participants are led to consider why they are doing this work and what it is they hope to gain from the experience. What this does is begin the process of connecting theory and practice. It grounds you and focuses you at the same time. Reflection at this stage begins to bring your heart and mind closer together. Taking the time to think about what it is you are doing and why will add purpose to the project.
Many teens will come to a project wanting to do something valuable. They may not necessarily know why they want to do this. They just know they want to do something of value. This is a good time to challenge them to reflect on this feeling, probe a bit more deeply as to why it is we feel this need. This small connection lays the groundwork for the total experience and will help the volunteer integrate what they gain from the experience into their life.
During the Project
As an individual actually lives for the sake of others through service, there are profound changes that take place in the volunteer. These changes involve oneís spirit, emotions, and intellect. We serve with our whole beings. As we begin to feel something from our experience, we use these three faculties of spirit, emotion, and intellect to process that experience. Unless we have an opportunity to do that constructively and intentionally, our experience may not root itself in our life. That is the function of reflection.
Reflection can be as simple as providing time to talk about what is happening or as creative as putting oneís feelings and thoughts to music, poetry or drama. In other words, just as the type of project is not important, the form of reflection is not as important as the fact that one does it. For example, one young girl shared the following during a project: "Wow, I used to think that old people were useless, smelled bad, and couldnít teach me anything. But, after working with these senior citizens, I really see them as my own grandparents." This was an important realization for her. It is the kind of realization that will not only stay with the teen for a long time, but will help shape her life in a principled way. Another young man who was working in a low income neighborhood reflected that: "I thought service was about me giving to the poor who also were lazy and didnít care enough about themselves to change their life. But during the project, I realized that I have gained a lot from working with this neighborhood and that they really do care and work hard for their children." It takes time for attitudes and habits to change for the better. Without the opportunity to reflect on our attitudes and behaviors, we might not realize how they need to change.
After the Project
When the project is finished, most youth will feel good about their experience. And they should. Through living for the sake of others, they have actually engaged their original heart and mind. That is, after all, what happens when we live according to Godís principles and Godís standard. But, the challenge comes when these same youth must go back to their normal everyday life. They need to bring their experience around full circle and bring closure to it by reflecting on their new insights and feelings. They need to ask where they go from here; they need to consider what lasting principles they have learned through their experience; and they need to recognize how important living for the sake of others is for their daily life. These insights will not come to them automatically. They need to take the time to reflect and allow these insights to make themselves known.
Time and again, testimonies of service learning volunteers indicate the power of this process. "I want to make service a real part of my life because this is who I am as a child of God." "Through my project I have realized that I was created to bring joy to God and others and that this is the secret to my own happiness as well." "I really felt God working through me as I was tutoring these young children. I donít to ever lose that feeling." "If there is anything I have learned from this work it is that we are part of a family and so I need to change my image and attitude toward others." Statements like these tell us that these young people have profoundly changed their lives as a result of their service learning experience.
Studies show that when community service and service learning are evaluated, those who engage in service learning have a greater rate of long-term change in their attitudes, thinking, and behavior than those who simply do community service work. As an educator and a minister, this is an important finding. It tells me that this is a program that we need to do regularly.
The time has come to take the concept of living for the sake of others more seriously in terms of guiding and nurturing the coming generations in making this a vital part of their daily lives. We can do this by encouraging our children, teens, and young adults to engage in service learning projects on a regular basis. In addition, we can do this directly in our homes by volunteering in the community as a family and then spending time together as a family to reflect on the experience. You donít need to be a teacher or youth minister to do this. All it requires is a desire to talk together, setting time aside for reflection, and considering what it is that needs to be learned from the experience. You can also encourage your local schools, youth ministries, and service organizations to add reflection to their service projects if they do not already have a service learning program.
God gave of Himself completely out of true love when He created Adam and Eve. Each of us were created by God with the same character of living unselfishly based on true love. Only when we live unselfishly with true love will we create this culture of true peace. If we are to begin that process, our children need to actually live that ethic on a daily basis. For that ethic to become an integral part of their lives and the lives of their children, we need to develop programs such as service learning to make the process complete. Only then will we see the truth of True Parentsí statement: "A life of living for the sake of others is the first gate to peace."
Dr. Winings is Dean, UTS-NYC; President, Educare; Vice President, IRFF.
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