Last week, inspired by a bunch of high-powered celebrities on Idol Gives Back, Americans donated over $60 million to a bunch of indisputably good causes. Egged on by Miley Cyrus, Billy Crystal, John Legend, Fergie, and Snoop Dogg, American Idol’s fans rose to the occasion.
But we shouldn’t lose sight of the most important element of making a difference: it’s to get up close and personal with others who need a hand. It’s to match giving with service, the kind of service that is personal, intimate, and authentic. It’s to make service a relationship with dignity and respect at the core. It’s going eye to eye with someone in need so that someone in need can make a difference for you too.
Sadly, too often, giving is defined in terms of money. If we give $10, we buy a malaria net. That in turn will save the life of a child in a malaria-infested zone. It seems so clean and simple: someone who has gives to someone who needs. Good fortune flows from one person to another.
But as good as it is to save a child from malaria, it’s not enough, because that equation leaves out a crucial variable: the benefit to the giver. The prophet Isaiah understood this when he extolled the benefits of “giving your bread to the hungry and setting free the oppressed.” In language that has survived thousands of years, he promised that in performing good works, “your light will break forth like the dawn, and your night shall be like noonday.”
Isaiah stands in a long line of prophets who encourage us to be the beneficiaries of the joy of unlocking the dignity and potential of every child of God. It’s not about helping out of duty or guilt. It’s about service as an experience of closeness to God. It’s a blessed act: to look eye to eye at our neighbor with love and to see before us the sacred. The fullness of the divine message comes only if we are open to the moment of reversal when the giver becomes the receiver; when the weak becomes the strong.
Examples are all around us. Just last week, I received an email sent by Steven Roach, a high school senior from New Jersey. He just learned he’s been admitted to several Ivy League colleges. But he doesn’t credit his grades for his success (although I’m sure his grades were first rate). Instead, he writes about being changed by going bowling with someone with intellectual disabilities. “Before I participated in Special Olympics, I was a shy kid with great potential. I was afraid to speak up in class and venture into social situations…
“At first, I was nervous about hugging and cheering on people that I had just met. But I decided I was going to put my all into this event and step out of my comfort zone… The bowling event propelled me to want to do more for the community around me, seeing how happy the people were around me and how similar they were to me. It’s great to know that my little bit of help can go a long way to help the bowlers of Special Olympics and in return, they gave me something that I never expected: the confidence to succeed.”
The importance of eye-to-eye service goes beyond the personal. In our times, we can’t create the kind of massive efforts we need to solve problems of fear and division if we base the work on pity and self-satisfying generosity. Today’s social movements require passion, determination and joy, and those emotional attributes come when we feel ourselves fully invested emotionally. And the full investment comes when the full experience is offered: service with others, not for them; service to unlock human potential, not service to help unfortunate outcasts; service to experience the divine, not service to soften the misery of life’s losers.
From this point of view, “Idol Gives Back” should really add another element: “Idol Gets Back.” And the generous donors who helped set the incredible fund-raising record should be invited to get down to the shelters, the schools, the hospitals, the senior centers and go eye to eye. And if you want to make a difference to someone far away, connect with them using the internet and email. One way or another, make it personal. That’s when the real joy will flow. That’s when the money invested will give its fullest return
“Idol Gives Back” was a celebration of how important it is that we all try to make a difference in whatever way we can. The same goes for last night’s Night of Too Many Stars on Comedy Central, whose proceeds will go to autism programs. I hope the shows will not only result in infusions of cash for some great charities, but also remind us that the real idols of our lives are often those we least suspect.