This weekend I participated in a unique birthday celebration. While many birthday festivities involve some combination of a bar, lounge, or pub crawl, a close friend decided to try a "little experiment."
This year, I want to celebrate my birthday a little differently... I'm putting together a "service crawl" through Manhattan. The idea is that during the course of that day, for however long as you want, to go somewhere in the city or walk around on your own or in a group looking for small unplanned, unexpected opportunities to make someone else a little happier... There's so much suffering and thus so much opportunity to do good that we become indifferent to in our busy lives, especially in a crazy place like New York!
And "do good" we did!
Almost 35 people came out on Sunday to join the service crawl in New York City. Many of us helped distribute blankets, socks and towels among the city's needy. Another group helped clean a park, while others baked cookies and distributed them among the hungry. Afterwards, we all met up for a dinner picnic and discussed what we did and who we met throughout the day.
Giving back to the community always feels good, but something was different about this Sunday. At the end of the day what stuck with me more than the impact we had was the thought behind the event.
On birthdays, whether through messages, gifts, parties, or cakes, we ultimately focus on ensuring that for at least one day of every year, the birthday boy or girl is "happy." But on his birthday my friend operated on a different, yet simple, principle: "To be happy, make others happy."
The response to his invitation was overwhelming. One particularly creative friend used her individual passion for public benefit through a Post-It campaign sticking body-positive messages in dressing rooms across the city. In addition to those who participated in New York, his message triggered several "satellite" mini-service crawls across the globe in places as far and near as Alabama, San Francisco, Dubai and India.
The key is to be spontaneous and look for unexpected opportunities to make something better, and to be true to your own perspective of what service is. Do whatever you want for however long as you want, and feel free to invite as many people as you want to join in with you.
As we shared stories from our day over dinner later that evening, one story in particular conveyed the message of service through perception. Along their way, one group of friends encountered a homeless man in Penn Station who was in need of serious medical attention. These friends, many of them conveniently medical students, performed a basic medical exam on the individual, looked up and arranged for transportation to the nearest healthcare facility on their smartphones (technology FTW!), contacted the station authorities, and stayed with the patient until he was safely under the care of medical professionals.
These students were simply fulfilling their Hippocratic Oath, but their deeds reduced this man's suffering and got him much needed medical attention that he may or may not have received otherwise. Perhaps it was the service crawl (though knowing these individuals I believe they would do the same on any given day), but they had recognized a need, evaluated how they could improve it, and delivered (literally) service in a situation where many others would "rather not get involved" or "let someone else take care of it."
Their experience led me to think that we could all probably use our own vocations, expertise, and talents to make the world a slightly better place for someone else. All it requires is a little extra awareness of our surroundings. Having the acumen to recognize situations by which, through efforts large or small, we can help bring a smile to someone's face is a powerful tool, and one that we are fortunately all born with. I, for example, can use my engineering background to work on sustainable development projects designing products for low resource settings, or even just help my elderly neighbor finally repair his computer and teach him how to email his grandchildren.
To be meaningful, service does not have to be accomplished on a grand scale. Small, unplanned activities can be equally, and sometimes more, impactful. Service simply requires awareness.
We are all blessed with the gift of giving, so let's use it to make each day a service crawl.