This week I watched two television programs designed to honor the great men and women in the US and around the world who dedicate their lives to serving others and making the earth a little better place to live through nonprofits and charities. One was the Chase Giving Awards and the other was the CNN Heroes Ceremony. Both events were full of very inspirational stories from inspirational people doing inspirational things for others. I happened upon both by accident while channel surfing, but followed the programs for a while because it’s always nice to see what others are doing in the nonprofit field and what kinds of creative ideas the public is responding to most. And although I have a tendency to critique methods and models in these circumstances, while watching these shows I was significantly struck by one permeating fact from all of the people that they honored. They would get up on stage and receive their trophy, then in their speech the first thing they would all say was along the lines of, “This award isn’t for me, but for all of the people that we serve in our group,” or “This award represents those struggling every day with such-and-such a problem and it’s for them,” or “I accept this award on behalf of the many many men and women who help us do what we do. They are the true heroes.”
Although I’m not winning these awards, I still consider myself in the same category as these honorees and feel like I understand where they’re coming from. As I watch the show I wonder what I would say in an acceptance speech, the same way I imagine aspiring actors do when they watch the Oscars. I know how strange these people must feel to even walk up on that stage, in their fanciest clothing, in front of hundreds of people and on national television and have everyone applaud you. It feels upside down and backwards, because it was never about you. It’s in our nature as social innovators to be selfless and not want to ever accept the credit for our good deeds. More than any other profession I think that we are all very aware of the multitudes of people that it takes to ever accomplish a task or reach a goal. Whether we’re responsible for the original idea and the original motivation behind a movement, we still recognize that we could never really do anything good on our own and taking credit for any of it always seems like a betrayal to all who have served alongside us.
I’ve always loved the story of the young Buddhist monk who was asked by his teacher to tell him something about himself and after a brief pause he responded, “Myself? My name used to be Me, but now it’s You.” I’ve felt like this is the attitude that we are either born with or come to adapt, those of us who are crazy enough to believe that we actually can make a difference. We’re the crazy type of people who will work like mad to do something great, but as soon as the spotlight is turned on we prefer to hide in the background and let others shine. We’re the crazy type of people that rather than fighting our way to the top, we prefer to build others up and celebrate in their successes. We’re the crazy type of people who typically don’t know how to take very good care of ourselves because we’re always so concerned about caring for everyone else. We’re the crazy type who all secretly wish for recognition for what we do, but as soon as we get it, we say we don’t deserve it, at least not by ourselves. Because we are the crazy ones who don’t define ourselves based upon our own individual existence but can only find meaning within our coexistence with others.
This mindset typically runs contrary to the culture we must move through, especially here in the US, but it’s not like that everywhere. There are places in this planet where society determines the value of an individual not on what he or she accomplishes, but on how he or she interacts with the community around them. Identity defined not based off of one’s individual successes, but on how many other people are able to find success because of their relationship to that person. This has been one of the most difficult adjustments for me as I get used to life back here in this country is rediscovering identity as an individual separated from those who have contributed to completing the sense of human wholeness for the past several years.
I know I’m sounding like quite the hippie here. I might as well grow dreadlocks, wear clothes made entirely of hemp, move into a tree and live off a diet of pot and foraged berries. But I really do have a point, which is this, if we are looking for role models, those who we call heroes, world changers, difference makers, they all seem to have one thing in common: an extreme resistance to seeing themselves as much more than a simple tool with which to connect others through a common spirit of hope. If we ever truly want our world to change, then may we all adapt such a reflection on who we are. May we reject ideas of “doing for” and “helping those” and “giving things” but rather evolve into a place where we can simply “be with,” “exist as,” and “live together”. You may say I’m a dreamer…(you know the rest).