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The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism.

To borrow a Joycean term, this is a book of anecdotal epiphanies, those sudden and sometimes unexpected manifestations of the essential nature of a thing, person or situation, as uncovered, in this instance, by the skilled interviewer and compassionate, self-critical listener, Robert Coles, professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard University.

If, for Cardinal John Henry Newman, "a man's life lies in his letters," and his 20,000 letters are testimony of that, then for Coles, a Pulitzer Prize-winning (the five-volume Children of Crisis) child psychiatrist, his forte is found in the documentation from thousands of interviews secured on his ubiquitous tape recorder and his aging yellow notepads over the past three decades.

Coles is author of more than 50 books, including essays, poems, sketches of heroes such as Dorothy Day (to whose memory this book is dedicated), William Carlos Williams, Walter Percy, Flannery O'Connor, Simone Weil, Anna Freud (daughter of the famous psychoanalyst) and, of course, the studies of children: in Brazil, French Canada, Nicaragua, Northern Ireland, Poland, South Africa and Southeast Asia, as well as in the rural South and the urban ghettos of the United States. In his The Spiritual Life of Children (1990), Jewish, Christian, Islamic and agnostic kids' insights challenge the adult mind.

(His workshop this summer, and for the next two summers, for Catholic teachers and youth ministers from troubled inner-city areas, was described in NCR, July 30).

This latest work, with its nicely nuanced title, was suggested by a remark of Dorothy Day's ("There is a call to us, a call of service -- that we join with others to try to make things better in this world"), whom he came to know when he was an undergraduate at Columbia University, influenced by his mother's concern for Day and the Catholic Worker movement. It is an exploration of the demands and satisfactions of voluntarism -- an unattractive word -- its perils and hazards, and the reversibility of the facile labels of benefactor and beneficiary.

It is, Coles says, a companion to his The Call of Stories (1989), for stories enable us to comprehend the world and the human condition, and service enables us to use what has been learned.

From his vast and catholic experience -- as an observer and often as a participant -- with volunteers, whether with tutors in the ghetto or the South, with aides in a nursing home or a library, with VISTA or the Peace Corps, or with the Red Cross or potato-peelers at a soup kitchen, Coles draws riveting lessons in his eight chapters and two "interludes," of what we learn, in the service of others, about ourselves and about what it means to be human.

Why, after all, do people volunteer? It is an intriguing question.

In his second chapter, "Kinds of Service," Coles arranges service according to the kinds of motives he has found in people of all ages.

Some, like Stan, are motivated by social and political reasons: "I'm here because I believe in something. I believe in racial equality."

Some, like a college junior, are moved by the sense of community: "I want to help the kids I know." Some my respond to a particular set of circumstances, and there may be no repetition.

Some do it for that vague word, charity, sometimes with condescending implications, sometimes as a Biblical mandate.

Some do it from a secular idealism: "It makes you proud to be an American," or from a sense of devotion to the nation, "a citizen's sense of obligation." Today more are volunteering from a growing awareness of the need to protect our environment, "the biggest country of all."

Service, as diverse as the family of words whence it comes, testifies, at any age, to idealism or altruism, as Anna Freud puts it, placing oneself in the shoes of another, absorbing the needs, and then going to work.

In this service there are perils such as weariness, cynicism and despair. Heroes as varied as Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr. have stressed being aware of our own humbleness.

Perhaps because of the mighty oral contribution to this book, there is a discursiveness and repetitiveness that make it less than tightly organized.

But there is nothing unformed or fuzzy about its message. At a time when values are vacuous or altogether vacant, there is no clearer, more passionate or more moral voice than that of this author, speaking in language that is wondrously free of the judgmental, pedantic and clinical.

E. Leo McMannus, a professor emeritus of English, lives in Venice, Fla.
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Author:McMannus, E. Leo
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 17, 1993
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