It’s not as cut and dry as some may think. As surprising as this may sound, living a life of service has as much to do with being as with doing. What’s driving the need to serve? And is it possible that it’s those willing to venture outside of the norm, to be willing to be themselves, are as much a service to the greater good as serving in a soup kitchen? I think about this all the time.
I’ve spent my life volunteering. In high school, I ran community service. I even won an all school award for it. In college, I volunteered at a Head Start program. Most recently, I offered my time at 826LA, a tutoring program for underprivileged children.
But I wonder how much good I did. This isn’t to downplay my services or what I bring to the table. It’s a deeper question about service.
“Be the change you want to see in the world,” Ghandi famously touted. While this does include action, it also includes reaction, or rather, how we respond to the world around us and ourselves.
I grew up with privilege. More than most, not as much as some. I’ve always been driven to help those less fortunate than myself. But as I look at it more deeply, I begin to wonder where that urge came from. I had more resources, yes, more opportunity. Yet, inside I was a mess and I was very much trying to be good by doing good.
What I learned was, it doesn’t work like that.
I was angry. I was angry at my parents, at my environment, at myself. My anger, while driving my charity work, was also killing me.
We’re complex beings and it requires a tremendous amount of resolve to clear the blocks that keep us from being ourselves. Anger is often the culprit, but it’s also very often the fuel.
Anger is a part of being human; it’s a primal and necessary emotion. Yet when we’re consumed by it, personally and or collectively, we actually inhibit our own expansion and the rectification of the issue at hand. Unless we use it to motivate us and to set us free.
Anger can propel us to change our environments, to participate in political or social movements, to contribute our time and resources to meaningful causes.
So we can transform outrage into inspired action. Are we motivated by a love or are we motivated by hate? Are we motivated by our love for something or by our againstness of another? Are we motivated by self-expression and liberation and self-actualization? Or are we slinging an arrow at the past?
Where we come from matters. How we show up matters. In other words, we can forgo volunteering and charity work altogether and still live a life of service.
“I’m not sure exactly what heaven will be like,” Mother Teresa once said, “but I know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will not ask, ‘How many good things have you done in your life?’ Rather he will ask, ‘How much love did you put into what you did?’”
I’ve spent my life volunteering, but sometimes I think it’s those who choose to live most authentically that serve us the most. The Elizabeth Gilberts and Maya Angelous of the world. The ones willing to chart their own course, the way-showers, the lovers, no matter what form it takes, the ones determined to set themselves free.
When I was at student at NYU living in the East Village, I spent my free time in a cafe on East 12th Street, surrounded by artists and creatives a decade or more older than myself. Almost everyone had a fluid sense of their sexuality. They loved who they loved. Some were gay, others straight, others transgender. This was in 2001. The world at large was not so accepting. But I learned something about community and love, about being yourself no matter the cost and it has stayed with me since.
I think of them all the time. Whenever I am unsure, or scared, I think of them. I think of their courage and their bravery. I think of their willingness and vulnerability. I think about their compassion and grace. I think of love. And I think of service.
Artwork by Michelle Favin of Whys LA for Poppy & Seed. Connect with her @whyslosangeles.