Service & Passion

By: Ku Ka Tsai, MPP ’15

Coordinating volunteer opportunities at the Kennedy School is neither thankless nor depressing. Far from it: It constantly teaches me about the importance and ease of kindness. But it has also made me think about passion, and whether it necessarily implies compassion.

One corner of the Student Public Service Collaborative’s room in the Taubman Study is plastered with the public service goals of HKS students. ‘Win asylum for Oleg’, ‘promote quality education in low-income neighborhoods’, ‘raise internet literacy in India’; the list goes on. It is not surprising that there are no shared goals. After all, there is a wealth of interests and experience across the HKS student body that is as varied as each is intense. It is what humbles even the most accomplished among us.

Yet the hallmark of compassion cannot be our devotion to our projects, no matter how meaningful they are. The hallmark of compassion is probably respect and humility, manifested in the time we spend trying to understand the loves and losses that mean something to others. To have compassion is to understand that each struggle is sincere – no matter the eloquence of those struggling. To have compassion is to fundamentally deal with the narcissism of our passions.

On these counts, the Kennedy School fails. There are some volunteer organizations in Boston that would rather not work with Kennedy School students. We sign up for projects and fail to show up. We draw up great proposals but delegate the execution. We commit but fail to deliver. In the aftermath, we offer understandable reasons for why we have had no choice but to disappoint, and we rest easy in the knowledge that we’re doing good in other ways. Yet the fact of our selfishness cannot be erased. We appear to lack the discipline necessary to complete an act of kindness in the absence of passion.

But never mind the outside organizations – look within the school. Passion certainly allows you to fight long and hard. But a school full of diverse and hell-bent passions is also why our fights can become so lonely. If we want to change this picture somehow, we must come to appreciate that the need to act is in no way linked to desire or interest. We must also see that the importance of making good on a promise bears no relation whatsoever to the nature or size of the commitment. Ultimately, true kindness demands rigor.