Helping Others, Helping Ourselves

ROBERT COLES has written more than 50 books, prompting the question, does any writer have 50 books worth of wisdom to share with the world?

His latest, ``The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism,'' reads less like a new venture than a gleaning through a lifetime of interviews, notebooks, and tapes for an answer to the question: Why do people serve others?

The reasons people give are as diverse as the voices in this thoughtful book: civil rights activists and sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta in 1964, VISTA volunteers in Appalachia in the late 1960s, suburban housewives and privileged students in Boston's black neighborhoods, individuals who, for whatever reason, answered the call of service.

Some signed on to please a friend or flesh out a resume; others, out of religious conviction. For the author, service was often a means of access for his research. He got to ask questions of activists in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) by washing dishes and sweeping floors in their Atlanta office; to black students in Boston by keeping them company during their daily bus commute to whiter, wealthier schools.

Many who served were changed by the experience. One volunteer tutor found that his tutee's need for ``a kind of moral purpose that will carry him through any number of critical moments'' gave him ``a reason to locate more explicitly and consolidate his own moral purpose as a prelude to sharing it, however gingerly and indirectly.''

Coles laces his narratives with references to loved stories and books. (The course syllabus reprinted as a footnote to Chapter 5 is worth the price of the book.)

One of startling points of this book is its frank look at the dangers of service: the endless ways to burn out, the weariness and resignation, brittle anger, arrogance, and cynicism that can grow out of ``a long, tough fight, even if you win it.''

The writer's advice: Stop. Take stock. Go a bit easier on yourself, be less driven, self-preoccupied, smugly self-righteous. Pay attention to what you are getting from service.

What is most memorable about this book, however, is not its generalizations or advice. It is the simple goodness that runs through the examples Coles cites.

Take Tessie, a six-year-old black girl who, escorted each day by federal marshals through abusive crowds, initiated school desegregation in New Orleans. Tessie's account of how she faced the taunts of crowds every day ``turned many of my ideas and assumptions upside down,'' Coles writes. ``Where I expected trouble, they [Tessie and her grandmother] saw great opportunity;... where I saw a child bravely shouldering the burden of a divided, troubled society, they saw a blessed chance for a child to become a teacher, a healer, an instrument, maybe, of the salvation of others.... A child's idiosyncratic and utterly spiritual notion of service was a key.''

There is also the memorable voice of the author. Coles is a storyteller, and a good listener. He seems to delight in being taken by surprise and to be as interested in the insight that smashes a cherished belief as in one that confirms it.

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