I went to Mass once. It wasn’t that bad.
In fact, aside from the tedious group prayers that harken to memories of my 6 year-old self squirming in a pew in the back of the church every Sunday, I really enjoyed the service. If you ever find yourself at a Catholic service on campus, make sure you don’t space out during the homily because if you pay close enough attention, you could stumble upon a detail as minuscule as a mere word or a phrase that redefines your life. At least that’s what happened to me.
During that particular 7:30 a.m. Sunday service, Fr. O’Brien was the priest who offered Mass—it must have been his turn in the rotation. I don’t remember exactly what his homily was about, but something he said, almost in passing, reminded me of the most important characteristic of a Georgetown education. He said, “The way I serve this community and how you all serve this community…”
The idea of service was so clearly integrated into the way he lives his life that it even permeated the language of his homily. His use of the word “serve” electrified the air. It hung there and wouldn’t leave my head. It challenged me to rethink the way I saw the world and my place in it.
The word “serve” has something about it that draws me to it. Perhaps it’s the kryptonite to my cynical soul. Behind this word lies an earnestness that can be hard to find in the world, even on this campus. Many Georgetown students spend their four years running from commitment to commitment, almost blindly, trying to meet the next deadline, to boost our GPAs, or to arrive at the next big resume-building achievement that will get us that coveted internship at the State Department or Morgan Stanley. Each task we undertake is just one more stop on the rat race to our lofty aspirations.
Throughout my two and a half years at Georgetown I have had countless conversations with my peers about our goals for the future. Sometimes I find these conversations enlightening and inspiring, but most of the time I become unnerved about the way some of my peers conceptualize their futures.
One student I had a conversation with informed me: “I could see myself being happy once I make $800,000 per year.” When I asked him how he planned on achieving such a salary, he said he would look for jobs that would let him follow the money. I left that conversation very disheartened, asking myself, “what is the point?” Is an arbitrary salary a meaningful marker of a successful life?
As much as I wince when I encounter people who have no discernible goals beyond a number in a bank account, I also struggle to find meaning beyond ambition in my future. Nevertheless, that one phrase in the one homily of the hundreds of Masses I have been to in my life somehow gave me a new grounding as I grapple with these questions.
I have found a way to cancel out the blind ambition that can lurk behind my aspirations by reevaluating them using the service of others as my top priority. I never consciously tried to live a self-centered life, but once I took the time to critically examine myself, I discovered that selfishness found small, indiscernible ways to creep into my outlook and my actions. Instead of asking what I want to be or what I want to have in the future, I now ask myself, “how do I want to serve?”
I try to pose this reawakened ethic of service as a challenge by constantly asking, “am I living my life with the needs of other in mind? Do I do the things that I do in life to serve others?” Sometimes the answer is yes, but I am not perfect. It is through tirelessly posing this question to myself that I have found a way to keep myself accountable, and the results have been amazing.
Once I reframed my actions to emphasize service, I found a new meaning in both my goals for the future and in my daily life. The interactions I have with others have taken on a new meaning because they are no longer primarily for my benefit. I have found that living for others gives life a meaning that never goes away.
I can’t change what our society values in a person’s life, but I refuse to let the value of my life amount to nothing more than a title or a salary. I want my life to matter beyond the scope of myself. I want to serve.