My posts here over the past few days have raised in my mind the subject of volunteering to help others. It’s something I’ve been doing ever since the fall of Saigon.
My reasons were selfish. After I escaped under fire when Saigon fell and returned to the U.S., I was subject to irrational rages, nightmares, panic attacks, and flashbacks. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was suffering from a malady we didn’t have name for back then, Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. Because I held top secret codeword-plus clearances from NSA, my employer, I couldn’t seek psychiatric help—I would have lost my clearances and my job. So I had to cope on my own.
I instinctively understood that I had to bring the unbearable memories of my time in combat and the atrocities that occurred during the fall of Saigon into my conscious mind and learn to live them. Otherwise they would lodge themselves in my unconscious where they would never cease to haunt me. I turned to writing down what happened.
I also volunteered to help others. I found that when my attention was fixed on someone who needed my help, my hideous memories faded into the background. So I volunteered to work with the homeless. I took care of fatally ill men for five years during the AIDS crisis. And I spent seven years caring for the dying in a hospice.
It worked. I learned to live with my memories. I learned to give all my attention to those who needed help. I learned that compassion heals.
But I learned something more valuable: giving of oneself to succor others offers unique fulfillment. It brings us to the completion of our humanity.
What we do for ourselves keeps us going. But what we do for others makes us fully human.