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Call me an idealist, but I want to serve forever


It seems that when I tell people of my choice to do volunteer work after college, a common response has been “And then what will you do?” I doubt these curious souls mean any offense, but I must admit that after the seventh, eighth and ninth person said this to me, I started to take some.

The implication is that a year (or more) of volunteer service is not enough to explain my aspirations in life. Apparently, they’re looking for a more solid answer, something with a little more practicality, something with a paycheck -- something realistic. Someday I will have to get a job that pays, they’re thinking. You’re only 22, but you can’t volunteer forever.

Call me a foolish idealist. Say that I’ll figure it out when I’m older. Tell me that you’ll wait to see what I think after a few months of it, but I want to volunteer the rest of my life.

I want to give myself to the service of others. I want to live with only what I need and believe that God will provide. I don’t want to forget what I have determined to be true over the course of my admittedly short life, which is this: A life of service and simplicity is the only way for me to find peace. I certainly don’t want to abandon it because it isn’t “realistic” in 1990s America -- because I don’t think that’s reality at all, it’s merely the status quo.

I think we associate idealism with youth because we all give up on it sooner or later, we all get our “reality” check. But I don’t think anyone’s happy about it. And I don’t think anyone’s happier for it. I don’t believe we give up our ideals because we realize they aren’t valid or true -- we give them up because we see it will be difficult to achieve them. And with every person around us that gives up, too, our task becomes all the more difficult.

But I know it can work, because my parents always lived simply. We never had a fancy car. Our house was comfortable but modest. Family photo albums reveal the pattern of hand-me-downs, as the same outfits appear on different children throughout the years.

When I was younger, particularly in my junior high years, this was a source of embarrassment for me. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t have Guess jeans and a Liz Claiborne purse. I hated it when my parents picked me up in our old Mercury Marquis that rattled and clanked and moaned. I thought we didn’t have these coveted items because my parents didn’t make enough money to provide me with the things all the other teenagers had. I thought we couldn’t do any better.

Now as I reflect on the reasons why I chose service as a way of life, it all comes back to my parents. In a culmination of every teaching moment, it finally occurs to me that their simplicity was not a result of an unsuccessful go at the white-collar rat race, nor a lack of ambition, nor even perhaps a situation that prevented them from obtaining high-paying employment -- they simply didn’t see a reason for excess.

Indeed, it seems I was right all along. They could not have done better. They modeled for me the value of what is true in this world, that a simple lifestyle is the only just way to live.

I want to raise my family that way, too. Maybe my children won’t understand, as I didn’t, when they are young, but they will respect me when they are older.

As for now, I am doing my best to help raise five teenage girls who haven’t had the benefit of a proper home. I moved from Indiana to Fullerton, Calif., to take part in a program called Girls Hope. We take girls 10-14 years old out of their “at-risk” environment and bring them into a nurturing home-setting, as close to a true family as we can be, in order that they may realize their potential, their talents, their worth.

I’m living with five girls whom no one would have blamed for giving up long ago -- but they’ve chosen to persevere. They chose to pursue the ideals they have set for themselves in the face of desperate adversity and every type of naysayer.

By others, they have been labeled hopeless. They have been excluded, outcast. They have been bruised. They have struggled on their own. Still, hope remains.

How I pray it always will. How I pray there will never be that one straw to break their precious backs. Oh, that these girls will never say, “I have fought long enough against these odds and now I must resign.”

I pray they will never be what everyone expects them to be. And I pray I can learn from their example.

Maybe my hopes will be dashed; maybe my ideals will be drowned in the reality of our capitalist, every-person-for-himself society, but I pray every night they won’t.

So why have I chosen service? Because I have discovered my reality. And what will I do after I’m done? I hope I never will be.

Tara Dix writes from Fullerton, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, September 25, 1998