I was nervous. It was my first day on the job as a crisis hotline volunteer. Although I had just completed weeks of rigorous training on how to handle all types of calls – from anxiety, to depression, domestic abuse, and the dreaded suicide – I was still a little uneasy.
I met my mentor for the evening, an elderly white woman who lived in a suburb not too far from me. We made small talk, then she turned to her Danielle Steel novel, and I started thumbing through my training manual – both of us awaiting the next call.
Almost immediately, the phone rang.
“This one’s yours, kid,” my mentor said.
I took one deep breath and picked up the phone. Apparently, there hadn’t been one for months, but sure enough, my first call was a suicide. Even though we spent an extensive amount of time covering this topic in training, I instantly froze up.
I placed the caller on speaker and my mentor immediately took over.
What happened over the next 30 minutes will stay etched in my memory for the rest of my life. The caller was severely depressed about a health condition he had been battling since he was a child and – to make a long story short – while on the call, he had the dangerous combination of the means and a motivation to end his life.
Under immense pressure, my mentor stayed completely calm and spoke to the caller as though he were an old friend. She listened, asked questions, empathized, and comforted. As she carefully listened to his experiences and hardship, she searched for bright spots in his life, which she quickly noted down, then shared those with him throughout the call – hanging on to whatever she could to keep him on the line and give him a sense of hope.
Midway through, she successfully disabled the caller’s “means” and he agreed to speak with a therapist we referred him to, and to join a support group. Fifteen minutes later, she referred the caller to an organization he could volunteer with.
I was confused … volunteer?
But my mentor and the caller together decided that assisting others with a similar condition would help him cope with his own illness. The caller then thanked her for helping him and he agreed to call back the next day.
Then they both hung up.
My mentor looked at me with a half-smile and gave that “whew!” gesture as she wiped the back of her hand across her forehead, and returned to her book.
To her, this was “just another call.” To me, it was one of the greatest acts of love I had ever witnessed.
The caller was prepared to end his life – but through genuine love and compassion, not only did she convince him not to, but she motivated him to seek further help, and inspired him to volunteer, so he could give back to others.
I know in Sikhi we don’t believe in “angels”, but I do believe Waheguru imparts His will through His creation. It reminded me of a line in a Shabad I once learned:
agan saagar booddath sansaaraa, nanak baah pakker sathigur nisathaaraa
The world is drowning in the ocean of fire; O Nanak, holding me by the arm, the True Guru has saved me.
That night on the crisis hotline, I watched this metaphor come to life.
And this whole experience made me reflect on “seva.”
In my understanding, seva, in the context of gurbani, has two necessary elements – complete selflessness and a connection with the Divine.
Although I’ve done many acts of service, I often wondered if I’ve ever done seva. Have I ever actually done something for someone else, where there was absolutely no haumai, no ego…no “I?”
Over the years, I’ve organized several events and projects as a volunteer, but I do get stressed out and frustrated when things don’t go as planned. So, is this still seva?
And even though I am cognizant of it, and make an effort to be “selfless,” sometimes my ego has a way of sneaking up on me. Some may say I’m being too hard on myself and too idealistic. But, there is no “wrong way” of doing Seva, right?
I agree that one should do as many acts of service as possible, regardless of the motivation – but I believe that seva, in the way the Guru describes it, is something more.
And it can be truly selfless.
When I read the story of Bhagat Puran Singh, I don’t think he saw a distinction between Piara and himself. There was no “I.”
These ruminations on seva have changed the way I approach volunteering. For one, I will henceforth try to choose the work that “needs to be done,” rather than the work that “I want to do.” Secondly, I will seek volunteer opportunities in places and environments that are different for me, that will challenge me, and take me outside of my comfort zone.
As for experiencing truly “selfless” seva, this is where the other element comes in to play – simran. I believe that, through recitation and reflection on Akaal Purakh’s Name, the barrier between myself and those I may help will dissolve. Through simran – acts of service, love and compassion will become part of my character and not something I consciously think about. The “I” will disappear.
But until I reach that stage – like anything else, I must practice.
Practice simran, so that it will inspire seva – and practice seva so that it will inspire simran. I must take advantage of every opportunity for seva. Not only because it is my duty as a Sikh, not only for the good it may serve, but from what I can learn from the “angels” I meet along the way.