Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Serving With Heart

“There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophies. My brain and my heart are my temples; my philosophy is kindness.” ― Dalai Lama
My love for people seems to have started at a very early age. Being brought up in a busy neighborhood in Beirut shaped my love for service and leadership. The other kids flocked after me to play and to join any activity I started. While some of them enjoyed kindling quarrels, I was the one who solved the problems and found a peaceful solution among my polarized friends.

My life was going perfectly well, I had lots of friends, was highly active and an extrovert until the age of 11 when the civil war started in my country. Partly for reasons of personal safety, I suddenly turned inward, left my neighborhood friends and their stories, and sat down alone, listening to music and reading countless books. At first, my books were about romance and fiction, and then I shifted to more serious materials—like history books, memoirs and literature. Reading was my escape, my mind developer and my future shaper.

At the age of 16, I thought I knew what I would do with my life. I wanted to rise above my ugly, brutal reality and change things, creating something new. I had big dreams, and I wanted to achieve them. Nothing would stop me from pursuing them, not even the war. I knew the only way to achieve that was to focus on my studies and work hard.

In spite of the dreadful situation in my country, I managed to excel at school and university. This enabled me to seize a very rare scholarship to pursue higher education at one of the most prestigious universities in the United Kingdom.

My love for people and my social skills resurfaced when I moved there. It was because I could relax and enjoy a normal life, and was no longer living in fear. I met lots of people who quickly became my friends. I hosted parties and was the glue among my diverse friends who came from different backgrounds and countries.

After completing my Ph.D. studies, I came back home and joined the faculty at Notre Dame University. In addition to teaching, I was the academic advisor of a large number of students. Working in academia was a blessing for me as it allowed me to be in contact with and serve many students on a daily basis.

At the end of my second year at NDU, I was asked to chair my department. I accepted the offer without any reservation because I knew deep down that with this new position I could do what I love best: connect, listen and serve.

There are endless stories I could share about my work here, but I am particularly fond of the following one:

In one of my classes, I had a timid student who sported a punkish hair style. In the middle of the semester, he disappeared and I knew nothing about him until his older brother came to fill in a withdrawal form for all of his courses. I enquired about his reason for having dropped the semester but the brother refused to talk about it. Two years later, I had a call from the student affairs officer who had an unusual request.

He said, “I would understand if you refuse to help because the other chairpersons have refused, but I just want to try with you.” He then added,There was a student who took a course with you two years ago who dropped the course. His name was X.” I said,Yes, I remember him very well.” He replied, “Well, he disappeared from your class because he was arrested for possession of drugs and then he was put in jail as the quantity he had was slightly larger than that of personal usage.” Then he added, “Now, he is totally clean from drugs and is feeling really wasted and just needs another chance to resume his courses.” My immediate reaction was to ask how I could help the young man.

Then we agreed that I would send him all the course materials and the student affairs officer would pay a visit to see whether he was facing problems and report back to me. The student sat for an exam in the presence of the SAO officer and passed the course. The following semester, he passed two courses that I arranged with other instructors from my department. The next academic year, I got a surprise visit from my formerly estranged student. He looked older and wiser. He gave me a good hug and thanked me for what I had done. Then we sat together and discussed how he could proceed to finish his degree. He did just that and started a new life, sober and clean.  

Finally, let me share with you the basic lessons I have picked up from my modest experience in serving others:
  • If you connect, listen and help with all your heart, your actions will be echoed all around you and for many years to come.
  • You need to support and aid others before starting to lead them.
  • Embrace diversity, accept people for who they are and acknowledge that we are all different in the way we perceive the world, in what we like or dislike.
  • Empathize, let your people feel that you care for them and that you share mutual trust. They will open up to you, and their problems will become less overwhelming and manageable.

 “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” ― Confucius

* I would like to thank my friend Richard Pennington for his most valuable comments!