I just returned from a week in Lourdes, France. With 70 volunteers we guided a group of 50 elderly people, many seriously ill, on a religious pilgrimage. Millions of people travel to Lourdes each year to bathe in its springs that are supposed to have healing properties, after a young girl had 18 visions of the Virgin Mary there in 1858.
I am not a devout Catholic and I don’t believe in the miraculous healing properties of Lourdes’ water. So why did I go? I went because I wanted to help. My motivations are quite selfish, really: I know that serving others fills me with positive energy.
Here are three lessons I learned from a week with 50 elderly people.
1. Compassion can be cultivated.
We know that we can show kindness to our friends, and that on a good day we may even help a stranger in the street. But can we be kind to everyone? Surely there are some people we just don’t get along with! In Lourdes I realized that it is possible to develop sincere kindness for anyone.
On my first day, I felt repelled by an elderly man in his wheelchair. Subjecting my immediate reaction to walk away, I started a conversation with him. After chatting for fifteen minutes I had seen so many commonalities between us that my initial feeling of repulsion had shifted to sincere compassion. Through this incident I realized that we can cultivate compassion, even for people who we initially despise, if we just have an opportunity to see their humanity.
That’s exactly the insight that drove an Israeli restaurant owner to offer 50% discount on meals in his restaurant shared by Palestinians and Israelis. This Zen Habits guide of 7 practices will help mean—and maybe you too—to be more compassionate.
2. Helping someone matters.
Following the logic of Effective Altruism, it is easy to conclude that helping a few elderly people does not matter. “Why would I spend a week pushing old people in a wheelchair if I can work on a scalable solution for healthcare?” I think the lens of “impact” fails here for two reasons. First, I believe that if everyone would take care of their neighbors, the world would be a better place. Second, I believe that when we help someone directly, we are reminded what really matters in life. This causes ripple effects in how we choose our careers and lives.
3. Religion can be a powerful framework for personal growth.
In an interview with New Scientist, E.O. Wilson said that we should eliminate religion because it causes great danger to our humanity. After Lourdes my view of religion is much more positive. Going to mass every day, I saw that religion can be a framework to become a better person. By reading stories of saintly behavior; reflecting on your own actions (and sins); and wishing each other peace during mass, religion can help people to be kinder. That is why I recommend everyone to read Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists.
In summary, the week reminded me how helping others truly is “food for the soul”. It also reminded me that I should treasure the moments I still have with my grandparents.
What role does service play in your life? Are there experiences that have transformed you? Which experiences would you still like to live?