The other day, as I approached the entrance to a store, I saw another person on their way in too. Since I got to the door first, I held the door open for them to enter without interruption. As they walked through they said “thanks,” and I nodded my head in reply.
Holding the door open for someone is a small and common courtesy that a lot of us extend to others. Often times we don’t know who the other person is, but we still extend the courtesy all the same. One way to think about such a small courtesy is in terms of service. When we hold the door open for someone, we provide them with a service. There’s something desirable about passing through an entrance unimpeded and when we make this happen for others it, usually, pleases them.
This kind of service is different from the service provided by, for example, a clothing store primarily because the former is provided without charge and the latter comes with a fee. The kind of service provided without fee can be considered voluntary service and it’s this kind of service that I’d like to write about in this column for the occasion of AmeriCorps Week.
AmeriCorps Week runs from March 10 to March 17. The purpose of this event is to give recognition to AmeriCorps members and alums by acknowledging the impact of their service. Service, when I think about it, is something complex. What I’d like to do here is focus on one complex aspect of service in accordance with the purpose of AmeriCorps Week: the impact of service.
Going back to the example of holding a door open for someone, I’d like to explore the impact that this small act might have. One potential impact is that it builds community. To see what I mean here I’d like to introduce an analogy. I often like to think about community as being analogous with a quilt. Quilts are made up of patches which are sewn together by stitches of thread and each patch is further composed of interwoven threads. In this analogy, people are represented by threads. As hinted at, quilts are made up of thread and, analogously, communities are made up of people. People, occupying a common space, work together to build place which informs and contains the values of the community.
Community values are represented by patches. People, in going about their daily business, do things that exemplify the values treasured by a community. For example, consider the value of “nice small town folk.” Contained within that four-word phrase is a whole spectrum of substance, but we already have one concrete example: holding the door open for someone. A particular act of such kindness, in combination with other experiences, contributes to the greater value “nice small town folk” when all these things are associated with a place. When someone stops on the side of the road to help out with a flat tire or stuck car, they’re weaving a patch together through their interaction. These patches are then held together by the people that weave them, day in and day out. Such things are what hold a community together.
With the quilt analogy in mind, the complexity of the impact of service can be seen with more clarity. Since the community quilt is woven through and through with the lives of its members even the smallest acts of service can impact the whole community through the extension of the threads involved. When one thread is all knotted up that tension is felt by others. When a patch wears a hole, all bear witness to the need for mending. When a thread stops sewing, all feel the absence. Likewise, with good works those positive actions reverberate through a community. Service works in inextricable ways but its contributions affect all no matter how great or small. All this is contained in the poet John Donne’s insight that “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
Even with the common courtesies that we take for granted, we all provide voluntary service to one another in myriad ways. We weave out and in, we sew, we mend. These things we do for one another are not without greater consequence though it may seem that the smallest act of voluntary service is lost after the completion of the act. When we think about service we have to think about the whole quilt and how those threads work together in small ways to create something much bigger. So, to all those who serve: thank you.
(Michael Stone is an AmeriCorps volunteer in Havre.)