Our view: What we can learn from dolphins

January 22, 2014 10:24:20 AM



In studies of bottlenose dolphins, marine biologists have discovered something interesting about their behavior toward sick or injured pod mates. 


When a member of their pod is sick or injured, the healthy dolphins will swim along the struggling dolphin, buoying it and bringing it to the surface for air to prevent it from sinking and dying. They will perform this service for days, even weeks, until the animal can manage on its own. In this manner, the pod remains intact and is strengthened. 


On Wednesday, Rev. Pam Rhea, director of servant ministries and Christian education at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, addressed the weekly meeting of the Columbus Rotary Club. Her topic: "Getting out of the box in 2014 -- 14 ways to change your community through volunteering." 


Her suggestions included some familiar ways to volunteer and some that are more unusual. 


But it was the way Rhea prefaced her suggestions that resonated most powerfully with her audience. 


Rhea offered a different perspective on why volunteering in the community is a civic duty, how those acts should be perceived and how volunteering can empower those in need. 


"We have to move away from the us-and-them mentality," Rhea told the Rotarians. "It has to be more along the lines of building community. 


Rhea pointed out that, not unlike dolphins, people live in communities and rely on each other to survive. 


"But what happens when someone can't fulfill their role? Someone has to step in do their part as well as their own part," Rhea said. "It can be overwhelming. That's why, when a group of people come together to share that burden, it lightens to load. It doesn't fall to one person doing the role of two." 


People are motivated to volunteer in their communities for a variety of reasons. But a reason that is often overlooked is that each of us have a vested interest in the welfare of those in our community who, for whatever reason, cannot serve their intended role in the community. 


"Volunteering builds and strengthens a community, not only for ourselves but for our children," Rhea noted. "Volunteering helps us achieve the kind of community we want our children to grow up in." 


The personal dynamics of volunteering should be reconsidered as well, Rhea said. 


Referencing the Robert D. Lupton book, "Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, And How to Reverse It,' Rhea said all too often the relationship between the person performing the volunteer work and the person receiving it creates a climate of condescension wherein the recipient becomes more dependent, not less. 


The proper view, Rhea said, is that these acts should be a collaborative effort between those who offer their services and those who receive them. Those in need are best served when they are empowered to play at active role in their own recovery. By such means, they are allowed to maintain their dignity and inspired to regain their role in the community. 


Actions matter, Rhea says, but attitudes matter as well. 


All of us who are functioning members of our community have something to give and an obligation to give it. The strength of a community is that it contains a wide range of talents, experiences and assets. When each of us, working as a team, bring our own unique contributions, the burden is shared and the community can flourish. 


As we know, dolphins are intelligent creatures, so we should not be surprised to learn that they understand that their strength of their community is contingent on the strength of each individual member of their community. 


We humans should certainly be no less intelligent than those dolphins. 


In 2014, let us bear up those who might otherwise sink below the surface, never to return. 


For their sake. 


And for our sake, too.