The shift from saving the world to serving it, is a shift from head to heart, of ego to soul. Serving the world, I’m discovering, has nothing to do with who I think I am or should be, but instead about what the world needs and what is being asked of me. Serving the world is about surrendering to the flow of life, to whatever direction life is calling you, and likely scaring the shit out of you a little. Being of service is about opening and allowing yourself to be guided and led, not willing, pushing or attaching to a preferred outcome. Being of service is never about being right, self-sacrificing or being a martyr, but rather about letting go of the life you had planned. Everyone I know has been called from one way of being into another. The process varies from gentle and obvious to potentially violent and WTF?!
My process was somewhere in between.
I love a good superhero movie. I love the genesis story of a boy (Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men, etc.) or girl (Frozen, Jessica Jones, etc.) who undergoes some childhood trauma that sets off a chain of events that makes them invincible to pain and responsible for the world. As is often said in the Spider-Man films, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Inevitably, the superhero will meet their match or fall in love and their super façade begins to crack revealing some mushy human vulnerability. Be it cartoon or breathy super villain, every narrative seems to carry us across the threshold of good intentions into the gates of hell.
My obsession with saving the world was born out of an innocent 16-year-old heartbreak. I remember standing on the third floor of the British History Museum watching a documentary film called Crimes Against Humanity. It was a newsreel of human-on-human violence and for me it was a call to arms. I had been blessed with so much and it was my responsibility to DO SOMETHING to change the world for the better. Thus, my inner wannabe superhero was born. To cover up the terrifying feeling of helplessness, I unconsciously created a coat of armor composed of sheer will.
I moved to Washington, DC to get a degree in Peace & Conflict Resolution and interned at the White House. I wanted to make a difference—a huge, measurable and epic difference. Government, however, proved to be much too slow and bureaucratic for me and I longed for a big, sexy change, so I upped and moved to Hollywood where belief itself could be altered, destroyed or created. I didn’t believe in altruism as a means to good works but harnessed a blatant self-interest. I got involved in social entrepreneurship. I felt powerful, pushy, willful and effective. No one could get in my way and it was so much fun!
Seven years later my inner superhero was exhausted and disgusted with how little I had accomplished in my mission to save the world from pain. No matter how hard I tried, pain just seemed to proliferate. The long repressed helplessness I had felt in that moment when I was 16 was still there, patiently, waiting to be felt. My cape was suddenly too laden with self-importance and disgust at all things human. Little did I know I was being emptied out completely. Descartes said, “In the pursuit of truth we have to discard all the ideas we were taught and reconstruct an entirely new system of knowledge.” My ideas of saving the world were being deconstructed alright. It was clear that saving the world was all about me; what I believed to be true and my pursuit of worth and external validation.
The shift from head to heart and ego to soul-centered living was one of being emptied out. My being special had to go and it was rough. As a part of my Master’s Degree in Spiritual Psychology I was required to do 68 hours of volunteer service. I could feel the old programming jumping into action, “What kind of service will be the best, the most badass and have the most impact?” But it didn’t feel authentic anymore.
I waited for a sign from the universe, or a flutter of inspiration in my heart. Nope. No glamour or chosen-by-god story here. “Your service project isn’t about you,” I heard from somewhere inside. I took the next opportunity that presented itself and found myself with the grueling task of playing with four-year-old kids at a daycare for underprivileged kids where my only job was to play. “What?!” screamed my mind. I am a big fucking deal, I can handle super intense shit, put me to work, make me useful! It was torture, at first for my mind to be useless, present, bored and patient. Wipe a nose, read Clifford in a silly voice and show up with love is all these kids needed.
I am learning that the energy of service is one of overflow, where I am responsible to fill my own cup and then show up, listen and serve whatever is calling for attention from a place of inner abundance. I didn’t think this was possible, but it is. The shift from ego to soul driven life continues and is full of surprises. I sure as hell didn’t plan to be a life coach or volunteer to play with kids, but alas, life’s flow led me to work that feels like play, and snot-covered kids remind me that a loving presence is the essence of who we all are.
Bristol Baughan is an Emmy-winning and Oscar-Nominated filmmaker, author, and private coach. She is a TED Fellow and Founder of Inner Astronauts, a custom experience and private coaching company supporting people in coming more fully alive in service to the world. Bristol holds a B.A. in International Studies from the American University School of International Service and an M.A. in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica.
Artwork by Michelle Favin of Whys LA for Poppy & Seed. Connect with her @whyslosangeles.