Another heavy day. They come one after another, not letting us catch our breath. They are huge, cataclysmic. They overwhelm. You look at the scope of the problems hitting us, hour after hour, and it seems like there’s no way to fix it, like there’s no hope. You’re staring at a tsunami wave and simply waiting to be consumed.
That’s how I felt when I woke up this morning and saw a news alert on my phone about the Supreme Court upholding the President’s racist Muslim ban. I had only just opened my eyes and the first thing I learned about the world today is that our system of checks and balances is unbalanced and unchecked. What could I, an unemployed disgraced former film critic, do in the face of such wrongness?
I contacted a friend and we made plans to volunteer at a shelter serving brunch to our neighbors experiencing homelessness. It’s something we have been doing for a while now, getting people together to cook and serve food to those having a hard time at the moment. We had done it last two weeks ago, and had said we would do it again in July, but never actually solidified a date. Today we solidified the date.
This isn’t to boast about what we do. It’s to explain how I have learned to deal with the enormity of life, how to overcome the hard times and the doubts and the inner turmoil. The answer is simple, and the answer is always available:
Be of service to others.
This is a core concept of my recovery, and it doesn’t apply only to those facing addiction issues. Being of service is the quickest and best way to make yourself happier, to make yourself feel useful, to make yourself feel valuable. And you don’t have to organize brunch service for the unhoused to do it. I love this meme:
It really sums up how service works. You can’t speak up for yourself, but you can speak up for others because service takes us out of ourselves. We live our lives so inwardly-directed, and that’s not great. We’re not meant to be that way. We’re meant to be outwardly directed, which is why when we do service we feel not only good, but we feel like we have no limits on what we can accomplish. We place limitations on ourselves based on what society tells us or what our parents told us or what we tell ourselves, but when we’re helping others all of those chains fall away. And if you help others enough, those chains have a hard time coming back.
There’s clarity in service. You are here to help someone else, to meet their needs. You’re not here to tell them what they should do – that isn’t service. Bossing someone around, telling them how to live their life isn’t service. Giving someone what they ask for? That’s service. You don’t judge, you don’t advise (unless you’re asked to, of course), you just do the thing the person needs done.
Here’s the great news: as that meme shows you can be in service all the time. You don’t have to just do it in organized ways, at organized events. Those are nice, and they really do matter, but you can be in service 24/7.
It’s service to ask your lonely friend to lunch.
It’s service to reply nicely to an older person who strikes up a conversation.
It’s service to answer a phone call from someone you maybe don’t want to talk to but who you know needs the conversation.
It’s service to show up at a friend’s event.
It’s service to give some money to a person asking for it.
It’s service to offer your seat to a person who needs it.
It’s service to consider someone else’s needs and anticipate them. Something as simple as anticipating another person’s dietary needs is being of service to them.
It’s service to have a smile for others.
It’s service to listen and truly hear what someone else is saying.
You probably do many of those things without even thinking about them. That’s great! Keep doing them, and do more. Just make sure you’re doing them for the right reason – if you’re looking to get something out of the interaction, you’re not really in service.
Of course you DO get something from being of service – a sense of accomplishment and positivity – but you are not looking to gain anything materially, whether it be money, goods or relationships. There was this Jewish carpenter who had thoughts on this:
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it. For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away?
You can read that ‘lose his life’ literally, but you don’t have to. When Jesus said this what I think he meant was more along the lines of losing yourself in terms of not thinking of yourself, of not placing your needs first. When we engage in service we lose the focus on our own lives, on our pettiness, on our greed, on our resentments, on our desires, and we open up into a bigger, better self. We get a glimpse at the person we can be if we just stop being so inwardly directed. By losing ourselves, we find ourselves.
Service allows us to feel like we are making a difference BECAUSE WE ARE. Think about your own life, and the times when people have been of service to you – been there when you needed them, helped you without you needing to ask, supported you in hard times and celebrated with you in good times – and you’ll recognize moments that have been positive for you, that made a difference for you. Just as you can easily ruin a person’s day with an ill-considered word, you can also improve a person’s day with a small gesture.
Service allows us to chip away at the big problems in small ways while making big differences in the lives of those immediately in our own small circles. We really want to make a huge difference, an enormous splash, but how we truly make a difference is in a steady series of drips. Says the Buddha:
Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man, gathering it little by little, fills himself with good.
And no, serving brunch to the unhomed won’t solve the Muslim ban problem. But it will take me out of the place of powerlessness that forces me into a depression that doesn’t allow me to take the appropriate action on the Muslim ban at the appropriate time. This is part of my self care system, and it allows me to keep moving forward and functioning well.
But more than that it feels great. It feels so good to be of service, and to realize that I can, with a relatively small amount of effort, make the day slightly better for a few people, or even one person.
One last thing: accepting help from others is being of service to them. By allowing them to be of service to you, you’re giving them the opportunity to lose themselves and experience the joys and pleasures of helping. Service is a two way street, and when you realize that – when you remove any condescending ideas that you’re above the person you’re helping – the true meaning of service blossoms.
Ram Dass puts all of service perfectly into seven simple words:
“We’re all just walking each other home.”