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From a generation of service to one self-serving

Confronted with a wholesome image on the internet, Claire Mathieson compares her generation to the one before and asks whether it is the lack of societal service that has helped create a greater imbalance in our world.

A few days ago as I was browsing through social media I came across an image of a 103-year-old woman who celebrated her birthday by volunteering at a senior centre. She can be seen dressed as Wonder Woman and is cutting a cake and expectant eyes around her watch carefully, clearly looking forward to their slice of happiness. While you can’t take everything on the internet seriously, and this very well might have been photoshopped, I don’t really care. It warmed me wholly. In a self-centred age where we have great expectations, entitlement and spend far too much time putting forward a persona instead of personalities, I was reminded that there are still people out there like this wonder woman. But are they a dying breed?

My grandparents came from a generation of service and duty. My grandfather was a steelworker during World War II and due to the importance of maintaining steel production he was not allowed to join the military – it was a reserved occupation. Some might have accepted such a fate, but instead he volunteered as a night watchman. Many others that could not serve due to age, disability, colour-blindness or reserved occupations volunteered for Air Raid Precautions, which involved fire watching and reporting any military activity, amongst numerous other duties. He was not alone. Many during the war felt a duty to serve, even when they did not need to.

There are, however, examples of wealthy families paying for others to go to war in their places. Whether it was a conscientious objection or “draft dodging” like Donald Trump has been accused of doing, the number of those avoiding service seemed to increase after WWII – possibly because the likes of Vietnam should not have happened. It could also be that there was far more propaganda during the World Wars I and II. Perhaps there was societal pressure; perhaps there were manipulative forces at work. I’m not here to debate that. What I will say, is that these hard times of war, sacrifice, austerity and service instilled in a generation a sense of service.

The poster of the wonderful woman at her birthday party reminded me of my late grandmother. Even in her last difficult years, which were sometimes marred with confusion, she wouldn’t dream of having a birthday without sharing it with others. My mother had to ensure that she had flowers, cake and small thank-you gifts in the boot of her car for the week of Nana’s birthday because as soon as Nana remembered her special day, she would immediately want to celebrate it by making others happy. My mother was aware that if Nana realised she had forgotten to prepare for her birthday, that she would have been deeply upset. Even in her frail state, she served others (with a little help from her daughter).

Growing up with stories from the times of austerity, I have learnt that those who have much, tend to give little; while those who have little, seem to better understand the importance of giving and often give much.  I look at the thousands of South African grandmothers raising their grandchildren, their own children lost to work, poverty or disease. They give everything to a job they should have long-since retired from. I look at our religious sisters who are unable to retire because there are so few novices joining their orders, and I think of those elderly still tilling their land to ensure their communities get some nutrients, because the young and abled have left for city life. Some have chosen the life of service, some have been forced into it, but as a generation it seems that the sense of duty is far clearer, whereas in mine it’s far less common.

Of course, this is a generalisation and there are plenty of examples all around us of service. But at a time when I am surrounded by a materialistic society – one that I fit into – I have to remind myself to do more. More kindness, more giving, more understanding, more service. My place of privilege is the result of my grandparents’ service to society. Am I continuing this tradition of altruism? And when we do give, do we flaunt it on Facebook?

We’re surrounded by poverty and a horrendous wealth imbalance. We are also spurred on to build on that which our parents and grandparents had – they wanted more for us and we want more for ourselves. Spurred on our self-importance and platforms that promote narcissism, it’s easy to fall into the trap.

Service to others does not just mean giving money. It means giving of our most precious asset: time. If we all gave a little more time to each other, wouldn’t our country be a better place? I look at that 103-year-old woman, who clearly has very little time left, and wonder if I shouldn’t be doing more. It could be as easy as cake, and could be just as sweet.

Image: Stephen Percival

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.