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A Citizen’s Guide to Greece 2015


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April 16, 2015

The spirit of public service

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Written by: DW

By David Wisner

For EF

For the better part of the past decade and a half I have been searching for ways to translate the concept and practice of public service, so commonplace throughout the United States, into the contemporary Greek reality.

I learned early on that there is not a direct or literal translation of the phrase into Greek, and I have most commonly spoken of citizen engagement when I have tried to explain what I do at the Dukakis Center. That changed not too long ago.

As I have written elsewhere in Politis, I spent time recently in a local public hospital. During my first full weekday in the clinic where I was being treated, I was taken out of the ward on a stretcher for some tests in another part of the hospital. As I happened to be wheeled by one of the doctors at the clinic – the doctor who had taken my dossier, I later found out – I signaled limply, upon which  she asked whether I was doing better than when I was first admitted. I was a little taken aback that she should show such interest in my well-being. I broke down in tears when I thought to myself that it takes very little to make people happy (as I had apparently her and she surely me) and how many of my students over the years I must have made happy thus with my care and acknowledgement. (While at no time during my hospitalization was I consumed by morbid feelings, I do have to admit to wishing at that moment that I had more to give than I felt I could.)

In retrospect, that kind gesture by my doctor, whom I had never met previously, did more to speed my recovery than anything else the medical staff did. And it also helped me answer my long-standing quest.

Now you will tell me that it is the duty of a doctor or a teacher to care for people. I will tell you that you are correct, and that this is completely beside the point.

In common English usage, public service is defined as “a service rendered in the public interest.” This can be done on behalf of a government or by private citizens. This second source of public service  approaches my experience in the hospital. And despite the fact that there is no direct translation of the actual phrase «public service» in Greek, I would argue that the gesture is universal. My doctor showed unsolicited care for my welfare,she did not act for material profit, she gave proof of a public service «ethos,» with no regard for her own personal situation. And I can imagine she does this often. You can’t really pay someone to show sincere compassion, but you can appreciate it and value it socially, as we try to do at places like the Dukakis Center. I might add in criticism of what frequently transpires at American schools, to create any other value than to encourage what Rousseau called our natural propensity  not to harm another being meaninglessly is the antithesis of public service.

So public service is alive and well in this crisis-wracked country – I found it in abundance in the hospital among the untrained laborers who transport patients to and fro throughout the hospital, despite the occasional gripe we have come to associate stereotypically – and perhaps wrongly – with public sector employees.  Indeed, I have often marveled at the fundamental kind-heartedness of Greeks I meet in all stations of life.

Thucydides wrote in his much-read «Funeral Oration» that ” In generosity we [Athenians] are equally singular, acquiring our friends by conferring, not by receiving, favours…” How much better I feel having spent time in my local hospital.

 






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