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Service Before Self

I started my day at an assembly at my kids’ school for Veteran’s Day. Both of my kids were performing, so I was there to see them, but also to support our veterans, and to check in with my community. My kids’ school is majority Latinx and many of the students come from mixed-status families. I wanted to be there for all of them.

The assembly was amazing. So much more powerful than I had anticipated, more than I was prepared for really. The speakers all seemed to realize that these students and community members were in need of inspiration and support, a path forward. I hope they heard the same message that I did.

Every speaker touched on the same core topics. The first is that America’s greatness is directly founded and dependent upon its diversity – the same diversity that exists within that school. Second was the idea of living lives of service – whether in uniform, or out. There was a strong call to serve each other. Last was the duty of the military, and all people with power, to uphold the constitutional freedoms guaranteed to ALL people residing within the United States of America.

The key-note speaker also offered the three core values of the air force for consideration. These are not military specific values, these are values that can be taken up by anyone, at any time.

  1. Integrity. He told the assembled students and community members that with this goes the pledge, “I will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate those who do.” In this way, he said, true integrity goes beyond being responsible for your own behavior, it also means holding those around you accountable for their behavior.
  2. Service before self. Note, this does not mean service at the expense of self! That said, he remind us all of Gandhi’s quote, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” He spoke about the many ways that people can serve their communities, the many ways that we can be helpers for each other.
  3. Excellence in all we doI feel this is self-explanatory. Even Bill and Ted got it.beexcellentAfter the assembly, I took my Dorkalope up to the hills for a hike with this song from my old friend Kris Drever playing through my head.

As this song played through in my head, I kept thinking about this feeling I’ve been having – of not doing enough, of not having done enough, which of course led me back to this idea of service before self and what that meant, what that looked like, what that created.

I come from a family where, even though we don’t name it as such, we tend to live this idea in pretty tangible ways. When I’m hurting the most, my initial response is almost always to think about how I can help someone else. By reaching out and doing something kind for someone, I almost always find that my needs get met as well.

As I hiked, I remembered this video that a friend posted in the midst of the election madness to give us all a reprieve from the fear mongering and shouting. At the time I thought it was sweet, but I didn’t reflect too deeply. I was busy and stressed and it was just a moment of relief, nothing deeper. But now, in the context of thinking about service before self, I see a powerful analogy. Give it a look.

Did you see that? Watch it again. Really. The words will still be here.

Okay, so here are these two cats. The grey one is drinking milk and the spotty one comes up and steals it away. So then the grey one steals it back. So begins an awkward cycle which puts them both on guard, to the point that at one point the grey one is so busy guarding the bowl it doesn’t get a chance to drink before Spotty steals the milk. So then – SO THEN – the grey one steals it back, takes a drink and then PASSES THE MILK BACK! And a new cycle starts up, one in which they drink, share, drink, share.

Game Changer!!

Okay, so how does this apply to us, to people, to this election, to service before self?

I see a couple of caustic assumptions that I’ve heard before being broken down here.

First – That if we are kind, if we are generous, we will be taken advantage of, and so we must guard what is ours, we must put limits on what others can have. Now, remember when Gray was so busy watching Spotty that Gray didn’t get a chance to drink before the milk got stolen again? Yeah, when we worry too much about guarding our stuff, first, we’re not able to enjoy it and second, other people might still take it.

Second – If we give people things (especially the basic things they need to survive, like food) they will become lazy and stop working for them. But notice – when Gray gives Spotty the bowl, Spotty doesn’t just lay down and drink it all before taking a giant nap, right? That’s because even though Spotty no longer has to reach for the milk, Spotty understands that the job isn’t done, it has just changed form. Now Spotty’s job is to return the bowl, rather than reach for it.

Still, it’s a risk, isn’t it? It’s a risk to offer something you think you need to someone else and hope that it comes back around. It’s a risk to be kind, because your kindness might be taken for weakness – you might get taken advantage of. (And now I have to insert one of my Youngin’s favorite songs.)

But fear aside – it’s necessary. We must be kind, we must be generous, we must give what we can, when we can. (Because remember, this is service before self, not service at the expense of self.)

Again though, what does that look like?

Here’s where I’m at right now –

When someone says they are afraid or hurting, remember it is not your job to judge the validity of their fear or the depth of their pain. Your job is to support them, comfort them.

I’ve been hearing a lot that people are overreacting to this election, that they don’t have any reason to be afraid. People have mocked those who are afraid and I just have to say – it’s not helping y’all. Meanwhile, there are a ton of people who are afraid of clowns in the woods – and no one is telling them to chill out, nope – we’re all like, “ABSO-FREAKING-LUTELY!!! If a clown jumps out at you, that’s justifiable homicide, that is!” But when a presidential candidate directly and explicitly threatens groups of people, and then gets elected, and then violence against people belonging to those groups spikes, we tell people to calm down.

NOPE. So much nope.

When someone tells you they are afraid or hurting – LISTEN. Offer support, offer comfort. That’s the bare minimum. You do not have to agree with them in order to treat them humanely.

As for people expressing their hurt – what looks like a paper cut to you, might be the thousandth one that person has received that day. You don’t know. So don’t judge, don’t tell them to shake it off, grow a thicker skin, or ignore it. Believe them when they say they are hurting and then offer support, offer comfort. It’s the bare minimum.

We have these sayings about “death by a thousand cuts” and “the straw that broke the camel’s back” so we understand that sometimes small things end up being the things that we just can’t take,the things that finally do us in. So again – your job is to listen, to support, to comfort. To believe that their pain is real, even if it seems minor to you. They are not you.

Last – look for opportunities to reach out, to spread kindness, to help each other. Pay attention. Be open. Allow yourself to be vulnerable.

Today I stopped to offer help to a cyclist who was broken down on the side of the road. His friend was on the way to rescue him, but we still had a nice moment and he knew that he was seen and valued. I was able to provide winter gloves and a warm hat to a homeless veteran because I saw his sign and asked him what he needed. I went home and went through our extra winter gear and found a few items that fit him and served his needs. This was me doing what I could, when I could. I had time today. I decided the best use of that time was offering a little extra to two people I saw who looked like they needed it.

Yesterday the thing I was able to offer was hugs and words of support.

I don’t know what I will have to give tomorrow, but I know I will give what I can.

And I trust that it will come back. I trust that if I focus on service before self, it will come back around. I trust this because this semester has been brutally hard, but people have caught me and held me up and helped me out and carried me when I needed carrying. And now, it’s my turn to push the bowl back.

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