Service is such a buzzword these days. And for good reason. There are tax breaks! And corporations that endear themselves through service are normally well received and patronized (see also: profit). And we feel like we’re satisfying some existential, moral obligation (see also: brownie points). But those are just cynical reasons for service.
I was comforted to hear, while listening to one of my 6th grader’s winter memoirs, something that gives me faith in humanity. When we reduce the concept of service to the human scale—to something individual and personal, we discover empathy. This student spoke of spending Christmas days at a local park feeding the hungry. She related the anecdote of her father giving his jacket—which he wore to the park on this particular cold day—to a man who needed one. If we compiled a word map of her memoir, words like service, need, help, gratitude, fellowship, and love would be large and central. This child, guided by her parents’ example, serves others because it is the right thing to do. She realizes everyone eventually needs a hand. She understands that her small effort could have profound effects. She realizes that the work brings her profound joy. And she understands the significance of the obvious; these are people whom we often overlook. When we meet them, even briefly, where they are, we judge less and listen more. This 6th grader, and teams of others like her, give me hope. This is an altruistic reason for service.
Neither I nor anyone else can contribute much to the discussions of the divisions in our nation. We understanding the polarized dynamics. Statisticians have examined the numbers, demarcated demographic breaks and shifts, and extrapolated meaning. We know the myriad reasons causing the divide, including economics, shifting power dynamics, and conflicting philosophies. And we each, probably more than we should, have proffered opinions and appraised possible solutions. We’ve talked and talked, and screamed, and talked. But there has been very little reconciliation and even less constructive, compassionate action. We are a tribal people (this can be good and bad); we speak in echo chambers; and we are trapped by confirmation biases. But, save the best among us, most rarely bridge divisions and actually listen to each other. And for good reason! The rhetoric is absolute and devoid of nuance. There is no poetry. There is no love. It’s insipid pablum. Or it’s vitriolic and pugnacious. It’s insulting. Read the comments section of any charged article from any outlet, or follow the comments in our social media streams. Their anonymity and cloistered nature invite our basest aspects. We're crawling on all fours, scratching at each other.
We’re told to stay away from religion and politics at holiday gatherings because they’re fighting words. We know the playing field, its rules firmly entrenched.
What we forget is that most reasonable people have decent intentions. Very few people have the intention of doing harm. Most people "strive for right" according to a just code. Of course semantics complicate matters, and we view institutions differently. And we—I—generally feel like my beliefs are right and just. But so do those with whom we disagree. Are there many routes from A to B? What does that mean about the nature of right?
I recently read--and I promise I’ll find/credit the source—that service could be the great mediator of our immovable oppositions. The author suggested that we put our differences aside long enough to labor for the common good. In serving others, we attend to them and neglect ourselves. We become active listeners. We cultivate empathy. We try to imagine what life would be like if we were on the receiving end. Our righteousness diffused, we start to understand another person. Surely, you can see where he’s going.
Service is a new playing field with new rules that force us to behave differently. It doesn’t guarantee agreement, but it promises to facilitate constructive conversation and, hopefully, compromise. If you and I vehemently disagree on a topic, jumping into the fray is probably a bad idea. But if we embark on a mutually valued endeavor, we embark from a point of agreement; we are in communion. We agree to serve others. It is an exercise in selflessness. And in washing the feet of others, we realize the value and dignity of all people. And when we talk, it’s a real conversation. Comfortable because we’ve eliminated pretense and begun from the antithesis of righteousness. From this stance, neither of us own the answers. We simply have opinions, which we’re primed to share in humane ways.
It’s unlikely we’ll dramatically shift our stances. My mother-in-law keeps waiting for me to change, and I her! But, in putting antagonisms aside, we find common ground, and it is fertile. We discover compromise, which derives from the Latin--put forth, promise + together.
Ostensibly, service may seem a one-sided endeavor, involving an agent and a passive receiver. But closer inspection illuminates mutual benefit. Individual lives improve. Communities improve.
I gotta find that author; this is good stuff.
Niko Tsivourakis, Global Initiative Director.
This blog is the collective voice of every person involved in the Global Initiative. Just as the globe hosts billions of disparate voices, we hope this space will embody and embrace the same diversity.