Recently my wife and I stood on the edge of Shoshone Falls. It’s a beautiful spot, and it’s easy to spend several minutes admiring the free-flowing majesty of the water hurled into the air as the rocks fall away, into the explosion of mist at the bottom of the falls as water and rock re-collide to a soundtrack of thunder.
While we were there a tourist bus pulled up, and a large group of apparently Asian tourists disembarked. They walked purposefully to the overlook, extending their selfie sticks on the way. They smiled at their cellphones with the falls at their backs, snapped their pictures, and hustled back to the bus so their fellow tourists could have a turn. There were maybe 60 of them altogether, and they were in and out in about 10 minutes.
I’m sure I’m not the first person who has raised an eyebrow at this kind of tourism. We tend to look at cultural norms that are different from our cultural norms — whether it’s eating, travel, hair styles or anything else — as odd, strange, or just plain wrong.
I’m sure we inadvertently look the same way to others when we travel outside our own cultural comfort zones.
And besides, we sometimes do the exact same thing — descend as a group, make a splash, then quickly depart — when it comes to serving others.
If this seems like an extreme stretch, bear with me for a sentence or two. I’m referring to community-service projects, the kind we sign up for once or twice a year. We show up at the designated time as a large group, the better to make short work of whatever project has been set up for us. We might paint the home of an elderly woman who can’t do the job done herself. Or we might plant trees for a new city park. Or help dig out a neighborhood after unexpected flooding.
These are wonderful projects, and are the kind best handled by groups of volunteers, showing up at once, and getting the job done in a few hours. But this is only one kind of service, and when we limit our personal service to a few group projects each year, we miss out on something very important.
Not every human need is fixed with an army of paintbrushes. Those in need — and I’m referring to all of us at some point in our lives — often require a different kind of help, the one-on-one kind. Perhaps it’s a refugee, struggling to learn the language and find a job. Perhaps it’s an adult who missed literacy as a child and needs someone to sit with him and decipher Dr. Seuss without embarrassment. Perhaps it’s someone struggling to emerge from patterns of abuse that have ruined years of their life, and must find new ways to interact with others. Perhaps it’s someone who yearns for self-sufficiency, and needs one-on-one instruction for simple things like fixing a flat, or sewing on a button, or baking a loaf of bread.
The fact is, we’ve all needed help, and most of us still do. But imperfect as we are, we can use what strengths and skills we have to help others overcome the challenges that life has dropped in their laps.
I hope we’ll all continue to occasionally descend like busloads of tourists to assist those who need the kind of help best supplied by dozens of willing hands and smiling faces. But I hope we’ll also remember that for all the good we will do that day, we will not make a true one-on-one connection with those we serve. We will only be one small face in a large group.
Sure, it’s good work to do, but it’s not the only good work to do. It’s the quiet, private service to another that may be the most meaningful help we can provide in our impersonal modern world. Even if it’s inconvenient. Even if almost no one else is ever aware of it.
Because as you already know, that’s really the best kind, isn’t it?