Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.

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Cheerful Service: This I Believe

For one of my classes this semester, we had to write “This I Believe” essays. If you’re unfamiliar with the genre, check these out; they’re pretty inspiring. http://www.npr.org/series/4538138/this-i-believe

Curiosity satisfied? Then here you are: this is mine. 

For the past two years, I have spent my summers surrounded by adolescent boys, up in the North Woods of Wisconsin. I took the job at Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan Scout Reservation in order to work with horses; the ‘Scout Reservation’ part of the title wasn’t terribly important to me. But the Scouting aspect of the camp, and the values it expressed, soon came to be a much more important part of my life.

As we turned onto the long drive into the camp, we passed a series of signs that enumerated all twelve points of the Scout Law: “A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” I was reminded of these words on a daily basis, but particularly on Friday evenings, when we attended the fire at the center of the call-out ceremony for the Order of the Arrow.

I suppose these fires, with their imitations of Indian costumes and recitation of supposedly Indian legends, must seem hokey to some. But the staffers who participated in the fire and the scouts who had been chosen to join this Brotherhood of Cheerful Service took the ceremony seriously. Before I had been at camp very long, I dreamed of someday being tapped out for my own Ordeal.


That dream followed me home after that first summer at Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan and carried me through a second. It remains a part of my desire to go back for a third. But as I sat at my desk this winter, mentally compiling a list of the achievements I could put on a resume and wishing I could include the OA among them, I realized that there was something wrong with my motivation. My aspiration to join the OA had as much to do with a desire to be recognized as a desire to serve.

Now, there’s a mirror hanging on the wall facing the bed in my room at school. Rectangular, with a simple wooden frame, it looks just like the mirrors in every other dorm room – except for the words scrawled across its surface in dry erase marker. He who serves his fellows is of all his fellows greatest, it says, and then,

Master, grant that I may never seek

So much to be consoled as to console

To be understood as to understand

To be loved as to love with all my soul.

When I grabbed the mirror, I was just looking for something visible upon which to inscribe the motto of the Order of the Arrow and the Prayer of St. Francis. But when I stepped back after hanging it on the wall, I noticed something highly appropriate about my choice of writing surfaces. The way the words floated in front of my reflection served as a constant reminder to put others before myself, turning an act of selfish vanity into a much-needed reminder to put that selfishness aside.


Perhaps it’s a little strange that I have the OA motto written on my wall, given that it’s a society I will probably never be able to join. But I believe in taking inspiration where you can, and the OA inspires me to be a better person. I believe in the Brotherhood of Cheerful Service and what it stands for.

Deep down, we all want to be recognized for what we do. We all want to be one of the lucky ones who will be grabbed by a grease-painted Indian and dragged down before that roaring fire. But I have to remind myself, time and again, that it’s not about the recognition; the embroidered white sash is not the point. It’s about making the conscious choice to live for other people, to put their needs before my own, and to always be mindful of what I can do to help them. It’s about fighting the urge to be selfish every time it rears its ugly head. It’s about being able to serve the newly-initiated OA members their hard-earned meal at the end of a long day and say, without jealousy or resentment, “Good job, boys. You deserve it.”