There's Nothing Perfect About Service


In a crowded bamboo hut fringed by the rice paddies and palm trees of northern Cambodia, Mau speaks passionately to a group of twenty eager females about a topic no one before has dared to broach in their village: women’s rights.

Mau has always been a bit radical compared to most Cambodian women. She’s never abided by the Khmer credo that “men are like gold, women are like cloth”, which has been used for generations to justify violence and treat women as expendable commodities. In righteous defiance of this oppressive climate, Mau has boldly devoted her life to teaching young girls and women in remote villages that not even marriage gives a man the right to abuse them.

When I first hired Mau as a trainer for the program I managed, I could sense she was hiding a secret behind her toothy smile. At the time, she was too afraid to admit that her own marriage was rife with abuse and hanging by a thread.

Like many other humanitarians, Mau couldn’t admit her brokenness because all she’d ever been told about justice advocacy was that she needed to be a flawless helper, an exemplary role model.Perfect, even. She figured she’d lose her credibility as a trainer on women’s rights if anyone discovered that she, herself, struggled to find her worthiness in a corrosive marriage.

There’s a problem with the level of criticism hovering over people in caregiving positions.A ttaching such strong morality to helping professionals creates unrealistic standards. Demanding perfection sets us up for failure. And so, we dismiss counselors or social workers whose personal lives are in shambles. We see non-profit phenomena like Invisible Children close their doors in the wake of a personal breakdown by their leader. We lose respect for pastors when we find out about the tension within their family.

It’s unfair. Because the thing is, there’s nothing perfect about service.

Mau’s personal struggles didn’t disqualify her as a humanitarian. In fact, her authenticity made her more relatable, more human. Her own brokenness allowed her to empathetically and lovingly reach out to women who suffered from a similar ordeal as her.

In the end, our purpose isn’t to be heroes but to being wholly human. Paternalistic exchanges between the “expert” and the “beneficiary” never work as well as mutual relationships grounded in common humanity. Holding up virtuous veneers to cloak our deficiencies and separate us as part of the “moral elite” doesn’t have the same impact as transparency and admitting our universal experience of brokenness.

There’s nothing perfect about service. Because there’s nothing perfect about people.