by Marlee Neugass
Sometimes, like teenagers often do, I wonder about my identity. I wonder about what defines me. I wonder about what makes me me. I find it not at all coincidental that whenever I think about the essence of who I am, I’m always brought back to who I am in the community, the roles I serve, the things I do and the person I am to others. To my parents, I am daughter. To my sibling, I am sister. To my teachers, I am student. In any case, I’ve realized that the whole of who I am has always been able to be summed up in who I am to the people around me and what I do for them. I believe the same thing goes for anyone who doesn’t spend their life in total isolation. Whether we like it or not, by nature of being in other people’s lives, our own identities are shaped. I’ve found that helping those in my community has influenced how I define and perceive myself. Through my community service, I have become Rock Shabbat roadie, religious school aid, a set of helping hands, and a friend.
These experiences have given me a strong sense of who I am and what I have to offer. Above all, they’ve taught me that we are the love we give, that it is the kindness and helpfulness and humanity we show that bares who we are to the world. The truth of our character is ultimately revealed in our actions, in the passion and heart inside of us that we put forth in the form of helping other people. It is not enough to want to help, to want to do good, to burst at the seams with compassion—we have to act. We have to live our lives in service of the community, of a greater good, of something bigger than ourselves.
When I was younger, I didn’t hear the term “community service” too often – it was usually referred to as “helping the less fortunate.” Of course these two ideas are not one in the same but they are often grouped together. Growing up, I was always reminded of the importance of being grateful for what I had because there were people who had a lot less. I was told this so frequently that it got to the point where the concept started to lose its meaning. But it gained a new one as my eyes opened up to the magnitude of injustice existing not just universally but in my own backyard. Rather than becoming more appreciative of the privilege I have, I struggled with guilt. I still do. It’s impossible for me to wrap my head around the fact that, for whatever reason, I was born a girl with parents who have jobs, a girl who lives in a nice house, who knows there’ll be food in the fridge when she opens it, who doesn’t doubt for a second that she’ll attend a good college. I was born into this life I never chose, and so was a different sixteen year old girl who wishes she had even a fraction of what I’ve been blessed with. When the guilt hits me, of course it’s easy to curl up in a ball, swear from then on to occupy as little space as possible, do as little harm as possible, to wish things were different. Wish life were fairer. But if I learned anything from painting a rundown church in a poor area of Trenton, it’s that, to quote Stephen Chbosky, “even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.” It’s not about what we’re given in this life but what we decide to do with it. We’re cursed with the ability to hurt this world but we can’t lose sight of the fact that we’re gifted with the power to heal it, too.
In a book by one of my literary heroes, David Foster Wallace, a character finds himself in front of two doors. Behind one is a room piled with all the food he’s consumed over the course of his life. Behind the other is a room filled with all the waste he’s ever produced. And he realizes something. That that’s all he, all his existence, has amounted to. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of legacies, of leaving something behind on this earth that says I didn’t just exist but that I left my mark. And I think that if I want anything out of this life, it’s that I want to have mattered to people, because of who I was in the community, because of what I did, because I moved for things that matter. I want the presence of my goodness to remain here after I’m gone. I’ve decided, if nothing else, I want to leave love behind.