The Work of Life
by Angel Hogan
At dinner recently, a friend opened her fortune cookie to find the following Muhammad Ali quote: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
We sat silent, considering. How has service impacted our lives?
During my childhood, my mom was a nurse at Saint Agnes Hospital in South Philly, first in the ER and later at the renowned burn unit. I loved visiting her workplace: an exciting world with its own language, lightning pace and dress code where my mom and others literally saved lives.
When the chance came to volunteer, I embraced it. Since my mom worked full time with a long commute, my time at the hospital was also a practical decision. At 13, I was not ready to be home alone for 10-hour stretches; volunteering offered a safe place to spend summer. Unlike other young volunteers who came in sporadically, I “worked” 8 to 5 daily. Most teens might have thought this was torture, but the days that my enthusiasm waned were few. I flourished with my new responsibility. I was a part of the team, had something to contribute and gave not because I had to but because I wanted to.
Volunteering opened an unknown door in my heart. I began to recognize the real gift of service is that it deepens our understanding of what it is to be human: wondrous, flawed, miraculous and vulnerable. Service has since been ever-present in my life, not just for what I am able to offer, but for what it gives back to me.
One of my most recent experiences found me with dozens of others in bright yellow volunteer shirts on the art museum steps. On a hot morning during the July Democratic National Convention, we awaited the arrival of thousands of Philly kids hoping to make history.
Mighty Writers, a Philadelphia nonprofit that teaches writing skills to young people in our city, organized an awe-inspiring event in an attempt to break the world record for the most people writing in the same place at the same time. Nearly 3,000 youth came out and sat in the blazing sun to pen what they would do if elected president. The spirit, community and magnificent collective effort of our youngest writers was an incredible sight to witness. What a gift.
Though much of my time is occupied by a job with a traditional wage, the words of Jonathan Safran Foer, on a slip of paper above my computer, remind me of the importance of giving, even when there is no tangible “pay” in sight: “Being attentive to the needs of others may not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be messy, and painful and almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die.”
I am no longer the tireless teen taking her zealous first steps toward service. Long hours and responsibilities make it difficult to find time to volunteer as an adult, even for people who are deeply passionate about a cause. Yet, when those slivers of time open up, using them to give to others is a mighty and beautiful thing.
Angel Hogan is a poet, volunteer and administrator in Philadelphia. You can read her work at angelhogan.com