“Do you covet honor? You will never get it by serving yourself. Do you covet distinction? You will get it only as the servant of mankind. Do not forget, then, … why you are here. You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”
Woodrow T. Wilson (1856-1924)
Wilson, a man of strong personal contrasts, the 28th President of the Unites States, is remembered as the man who shepherded the country through WW I and failed at getting the U.S. into the League of Nations. A Progressive who attempted to abolish child labor and was a supporter, albeit reluctant, of woman’s suffrage. Yet he also instituted strongly segregationist policies in Federal government administration and was an unrepentant racist., a man who objected to slavery not on moral or humanitarian grounds, but as an attack on labor rights.
The quote above is excerpted from an address Wilson gave at Swarthmore College, in October of 1913. In that address he exhorts the graduates to forgo the easy path of the privileged, and consider instead the road of sacrifice, very much implying that those who had the privileges of finance and family that enabled them to attend college were somehow intrinsically, rather than by circumstance, more favored than the rest of the citizenry, and it was their duty to make those sacrifices, playing a "beneficent role" as in Kipling’s White Man’s Burden.
I find this address, and especially the quoted passage, as a case where one can find commonality of result from wildly disparate foundations, where I find the impulse to Service, to live to the ideal to “enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement” as a logical result of the dictates of Humanism, theistic or not. As a Christian I am compelled to service, by faith in the concept of humanity as a corporeal expression of God’s existence in the world, where His presence is implicit in every person, no matter the circumstances of birth, wealth or position. Or expressed faith.
The service offered may be working at, or contributing to, a food pantry, the public service that Wilson is exhorting the Swarthmore graduates to, it may be a :random act of kindness" to a stranger, or something as mundane and unremarkable as erecting trail-side cairns to guide hikers you will never see. But the act of service itself is something that seems to be called from many, as a part of the human condition.
In the Gospels Jesus exhorts us, the “graduates” of the tradition of two millennia of religious theorizing, to hearken back to the simple aims He expressed: to better the world; to feed the hungry; to visit the prisoner; to care for the widow, the orphan and the leper.
It is our simple duty, as human beings, to do so.
Of course, we need to remind ourselves to watch for the hubris, that overweening pride, of considering that, as Christians, we have some mystical superiority in the reasons for any good works we may do, and feel that the good done, out of simple altruism, by those who are of other faiths, or no faiths at all, is somehow not as meaningful, or as uplifting. The Grace offered, and shown, is offered to all, not just those who visibly follow the Law.
“You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”