by Michael Silveus, D.D.S., M.S.
Charity, or caritas—love of neighbor—takes on many flavors, but action is the cornerstone of love. In their book The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders (Deeds, 2015), Dr. Karl Haden and Prof. Rob Jenkins point out that “perhaps the highest manifestation of love for others is serving them” (p. 187). Charity motivates us to act, and as Haden and Jenkins write, love “is not about feelings but rather about actions” (p. 186).
Feelings evoke action and, consequently, action evokes feelings. Once you have done the charitable act, be it donating money or time, or both, active reflection can deepen the experience of caritas. Reflection is a healthy way of enriching the charitable act and growing as a person. It can be helpful to reflect on both the action and the feelings you experienced along the way.
How do you reflect? Ideally, it is nice if you can do so with the other volunteers. If your family was involved, for example, reflect on the activity at your next family meal. Perhaps you prefer self-reflection, which can be augmented by journaling about your experiences and feelings.
If you find self-reflection difficult, I suggest starting by thinking back on the experience. Take time to remember all that you did. Write down those memories and your thoughts and feelings about them. What initially drew you to the volunteer experience? What propelled you to sign up, knowing your many time constraints, when at previous times you might have been similarly motivated but did not act? How did you feel while doing the work or activity? How did the patrons make you feel? What are your next steps after this experience?
Let’s consider a few possible scenarios:
- Even though you leave tired after spending a night volunteering at the local homeless shelter, you feel paradoxically refreshed by the knowledge that your actions contributed to other people’s having a warm bed for the night. Why do you feel refreshed instead of tired? What landed these individuals in this facility on this night?
- Your fingers are numb after having scraped off old paint on an afternoon that turned unseasonably cold. You realize, however, that you are getting more out of the experience than the senior who can remain independent in her home, thanks in part to your maintenance. You have given your time and energy, so why do you feel that you have benefitted from the experience? Why do you feel warm inside, even though your fingers and toes have been numbed by the elements?
- You write a check for a local soup kitchen and know that you have helped a struggling family get a healthy dinner at the end of the month, when their funds have run dry. Reflect on why you are the donor and not a member of the family in need. What is your next step?
The act of reflecting will raise more questions that you can ask yourself, your colleagues, and your family. Customize them to the situation. What matters is that, in addition to actually giving, you reflect on your experience. Take it to a deeper level. Understand the charitable stirrings in your heart and how giving to others affected not just the recipients, but also you. Let us know if it leads to any lasting changes in your behaviors.
Michael Silveus, D.D.S., M.S.
Dr. Silveus is a Vice President at AAL and has a broad range of expertise in leadership development, institutional feasibility assessment and founding, accreditation, strategic planning, and faculty mentoring. He has worked in development and campus ministry, and provided care at dental clinics in underserved areas. He was on the original administrative team that founded the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School network. Dr. Silveus serves on many boards, including the Institute of Clinical Bioethics at St. Joseph’s University.