August 18, 2009

Service for Its Own Sake

2009 1521 page22 caphe term disinterested suggests selflessness, while charitable acts are generally thought to flow from a spirit of benevolence. Combined, the term disinterested bene?volence forms a uniquely nineteenth-century expression that is still in use today. One who practices disinterested benevolence cheerfully promotes the welfare of others without considering one’s self.

A Delicate Wish to Serve
Francis Collins, M.D., touted head of the hugely successful Human Genome Project, traveled to Nigeria in the summer of 1989 as a missionary physician. He welcomed the summer “adventure” because he’d long been curious about African life in general and felt that contributing something of value in such a challenging locale might be fun. Although he occasionally fretted that his high-tech medical skills might be poorly matched for treating tropical diseases, he believed he could make a significant contribution to the many patients he anticipated processing.
But on arrival he found the Eku hospital unlike any he had previously experienced. There were never enough beds, and families often accompanied their relatives in order to feed them. He became convinced that the rampant spread of disease could be traced to the appalling state of the public health system. Malaria, tetanus, tuberculosis, and numerous parasitic diseases thrived in the unprotected environment.
2009 1521 page22Overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems, and exhausted by the never-ending flood of patients with illnesses he was poorly equipped to diagnose, much less treat, Collins grew increasingly discouraged. He even began to wonder why he’d ever thought a charity trip to Africa might be a welcome diversion.
Life-or-Death Decisions
Then one day a young farmer was brought to the hospital by his family. The man had massive swelling in his legs. During the examination Collins noticed the young man’s pulse disappeared each time he inhaled. Though he had never seen a “paradoxical pulse” so dramatically exhibited, Francis quickly realized his patient had accumulated a large amount of fluid in the pericardial sac around his heart. The fluid had begun to choke off circulation and was now threatening his life.
Collins decided tuberculosis was the most likely cause, and though the requisite drugs were in the hospital pharmacy, they wouldn’t work quickly enough to save his life. Unless Collins took drastic action, his patient had but a few days to live. Collins’ only chance to save the young man involved the delicate procedure of drawing off the pericardial fluid with a large bore needle inserted into the chest. In America this procedure would be conducted by a highly trained cardiologist, guided at every step by an ultrasound machine to avoid lacerating the heart and causing immediate death.
“Practicing” Without Specialists
Without ultrasound, or specialists, or even general practitioners who had experience with such a procedure, Collins realized that he would have to perform the highly invasive needle aspiration himself. After listening to the doctor’s careful explanation of his condition, the young farmer calmly urged him to proceed.
2009 1521 page22With a prayer on his lips, Collins inserted a large needle just under the patient’s sternum and aimed for his left shoulder, fully conscious that one wrong move on his part would almost certainly kill the patient. Though the rush of dark-red fluid into the syringe momentarily led Collins to think he’d entered the heart chamber itself, he soon realized that it wasn’t normal heart blood. Rather, it was a massive quantity of bloody tuberculous effusion from the pericardial sac surrounding the heart. With nearly a quart of fluid drawn off, the young man’s response was spectacular. The paradoxical-pulse phenomenon disappeared almost at once, and within 24 hours the swelling in his legs rapidly improved.
Counsel From a Farmer
The following morning Collins found the young farmer greatly improved—and reading his Bible. Studying the doctor’s face, he asked if he had worked at the hospital long. Irritated that his novice status was so easily recognized, Collins admitted he was indeed new. Then the farmer, so different from Collins in culture and education, spoke: “I get the sense you are wondering why you came here. I have an answer for you. You came here for one reason. You came here for me.”1
Amazed that a simple farmer could look into his heart, Collins was even more amazed at the accuracy of the young man’s discernment! For, though he had plunged a needle perilously close to his patient’s heart, the patient had directly impaled his physician’s heart! With a few choice words he had retired Collins’ grandiose dreams of becoming the great White doctor who healed the African millions.
Collins later admitted that his patient had been correct. “We are each called to reach out to others. On rare occasions that can happen on a grand scale, but most of the time it happens in simple acts of kindness of one person to another. Those are the events that really matter.”2 His tears flowed from an indescribable reassurance that for at least one moment he was in complete harmony with God’s will, bonded together with a young African farmer in a most unlikely but marvelous way.
Nothing Collins had previously learned from science could explain his experience. No evolutionary rationales for human behavior could account for why it seemed so right for a privileged White man to be standing at the bedside of a young African farmer, each of them having received something exceptional. “It is an affront to materialism and naturalism,” declared Collins. “And it is the sweetest joy that one can experience.”3

Questions for Reflection

1. Describe briefly some of the reward of the rewards you've experienced as a result of serving others.

2. While there are certainly altruistic reasons for serving others, what other reasons might not be so selfless?

3. Why is it so easy to feel somehow superior to those we serve? What is the antidote to such an attitude?

Other than Jesus, who are your role models when it comes to serving others? List at least three.

Less Noble Dreams

In his years spent dreaming about Africa, Collins had felt a desire to do something truly unselfish, to serve without the slightest anticipation of personal benefit. Unfortunately, he had let other less noble dreams get in the way—an expectation of receiving esteem from the Eku villagers, and an anticipation of applause from medical colleagues back home. But those grand schemes had clearly not happened for him in the gritty reality of everyday Eku.

Physician-geneticist-relief missionary Collins finally realized that the simple act of helping just one person caught in a desperate situation—even if one’s skills are poorly matched to the challenge—constitutes one of the most meaningful of all human experiences. In a moment of epiphany Collins realized he was on the true path.
The compass pointed, not to self-glory, or materialism, or even medical science, but to the capacity for selfless compassion divinely lodged within each of us—to the possibility of disinterested benevolence. 
1Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: ?A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Wheeler Publishing, 2007), p. 286.
3Ibid., p. 287.
Gerald A. Colvin, a retired professor and graduate dean at Southern Adventist University, writes from Ootewah, Tennessee.