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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Humility 101

    Marian Lacycolumnist
    Marian Lacy

    Volunteerism is one of those things that everyone can agree upon. It allows the volunteer to contribute to others. But what about when the volunteer feels inadequate? What about when the volunteer is inadequate? That’s even better.

    At Nazareth Hospital, I’m unfamiliar with the culture and the work environment, which means that my attempts to be helpful often complicate or worsen things.

    Every time a patient or visitor addresses me, I try to make it obvious that I am not a native Arabic speaker. This signal generally includes a blank, confused expression, followed by my oft-repeated apology, “”I speak only a little Arabic.”” My admission invariably receives a smile and an attempt to speak more slowly or in English. But sometimes, confusion is inevitable.

    Late last night a young man from a neighboring village was admitted to the ward. His mother stayed with him throughout the night, sleeping on a chair. When I arrived in the morning, she requested something in a rather hushed tone. I couldn’t understand her Arabic dialect very well, but I did manage to pick out the one essential word, “”water.”” “”Oh, water,”” I said, and rushed quickly to the kitchenette at the end of the hallway.

    But when I handed her a plastic cup, she looked at me in bewilderment. She whispered something to me very rapidly. I nodded, unwilling to acknowledge even to myself that I had no idea what she was saying. It was only when she walked hesitatingly to her son’s bed with the empty cup that I realized that I had misunderstood: he needed to “”pass water,”” not “”drink water.”” While I embarrassed both the woman and myself, I at least managed to save the cup before it was too late.

    Of course, I’m becoming increasingly familiar with how the ward operates, and I’m picking up some of the local Arabic dialect. But more importantly, my perception of myself is changing; I’m getting a much-needed dose of humility.

    My life as a foreign aide nurse has lent me a new personality that I would have never developed on my own: I now, out of necessity, listen a lot and talk very little. I’m learning many things about human interaction: namely, people appreciate good listeners.

    Also, I’ve identified a sure-fire technique for garnering multiple marriage offers – from men occasionally, but mostly from their mothers on the lookout for good daughters-in-law. Women’s roles involving food preparation and housekeeping skills may vary across cultures, but everyone appreciates someone who knows when not to speak her mind.

    My natural inclination is to opine at every opportunity; I’ve been pretty verbose since the age of about 11 months, and that may never change. But at least now I’ve experienced firsthand Mark Twain’s observation: “”It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and prove it right.””

    My volunteer work – that is, my attempt to help – is the best education for me.

    I’m discovering what it’s like to struggle, to work hard and to still not succeed. I’m learning that human failures require patience and understanding, because that is what my own failures have required.

    I’ve realized that my success in school and in U.S. society is often a result not of my inherent competence, genius or skill but of the blessings of my circumstances: a resource-rich nation, a nurturing family and a life that is comfortable enough that I have time for studying and social pursuits.

    Volunteerism is often lauded for its effect on the community, but I think its greatest effect is on the volunteer, who soon learns that he doesn’t know as much as he thought he did.

    We have a beautiful notion of the good leader as a public servant, but what does that mean? Why do we appreciate humility in our leaders?

    It’s not because a servant accomplishes more than a boss. Jesus didn’t command his disciples to wash each others’ feet because dirty appendages were the most pressing first-century health issue. I don’t think Muhammad was emphasizing the importance of hydration when he told his followers to “”pour water from thy bucket into the vessel of thy brother.”” And Ghandi didn’t want to share the untouchables’ affliction and suffering because his participation alone would lift them out of their condition.

    We want leaders – and followers – with humility because they’ve already realized their shortcomings. When they’re not focused on their own contributions, they can care for their “”brothers,”” disregarding matters of knowledge, position and authority.

    So, volunteer, but not because you’ll change the world. You’ll probably make lots of mistakes. You might even ruin a few kitchen utensils. But you’ll realize, to paraphrase St. Augustine, the insufficiency of your own merit.

    Now is the time to volunteer, while you still know nothing.

    Marian Lacy is a senior majoring in Near Eastern studies, molecular and cellular biology, and English. She is volunteering this semester at a hospital in Nazareth, Israel. She can be reached at

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