Alan Morinis is the chairman of the SEVA Service Society, which has just sponsored a wonderful conference on the meaning of service. For more information on their work, write to SEVA, PO Box 33807, Station D, Vancouver, B.C. V6J 3EO, or call 604/733-9877.
I ONCE WENT to a benefit dinner sponsored by a well- known service organization. The proceeds from the event were going to support a very worthy project to help kids, and a good dinner was in store. What I had not bargained on was the night’s entertainment. Between courses exotic dancers jumped up on the tables and gyrated every part of their anatomy in front of my appetite. How bizarre, I thought. Is it ‘service’ when you debase one person to help another?
This is just one of many difficult questions that arise when we consider "service." The idea of service is so simple – it is nothing more than "selfless giving" – but the reality is much more complex, especially when we bring the idea of service down to the level of the practical in our personal lives.
Human beings are blessed with what seems to me to be a natural capacity to be generous, a fact which is only made interesting because we are also so intimate with the equally natural shadow part of our nature – that is, selfishness. Throughout the history of culture the two voices of selfishness and generosity have sung their unharmonious duet, and this generation is no different. If we listen we can clearly hear the gentle counterpoint of "HereTake" reflecting against the booming voice of "MeMine."
On a moment’s reflection we voice our support for "HereTake" almost every time. No matter how selfish a person may appear, you can be sure that he is trying to be as generous as he can, because it is generosity that is valued above self-seeking.
But this inclination towards selfless generosity is more often than not intercepted as we respond to competing values and desires playing within us. Sometimes it loses the battle to "MeMine," but not always, of course. Our concerned generosity is often manifest.
So we go, seesawing back and forth between generosity and selfishness, neither winning a final victory, neither surrendering its cause. Saints are the perfect embodiment of generosity who have made superhuman efforts to conquer the demon of selfishness that plagues us all. But it is only for saints that this struggle is over; the rest of us go back and forth. Our efforts to serve are part of a complex dance within ourselves.
If that was all there was to it, it would be easy to raise the call of battle, put on our white hats and join the fray for good and virtue. We don’t get off quite so easily. Once we succeed in getting clear enough of those hindrances of the ego so that we actually are inclined to serve generously, a whole new set of problems arise. Like, who needs what we can offer? What can we give? Is there any point in giving even the shirt off our back when there are socioeconomic factors that are causing poverty and suffering in the first place? These questions represent the burden of the generous.
There is a story of a pilgrim who faced these problems on a visit to the Hindu holy city of Benaras. As a revered pilgrimage centre, Benaras has attracted a massive legion of beggars, all of whom man their stations along the road that pilgrims must walk to get down to the holy river. As this generous pilgrim walked along between the two lines of beggars, he dropped a coin into every bowl that reached out to him. It soon became apparent that he did not have enough coins for every beggar that waited before the river. He thought about this problem, and then adopted a strategy. Now he would give only to those whose need was most severe. And he began to judge: "I think having no legs is worse than having no arms. Here’s a coin for you, but not you." And "Being blind is worse than being deaf. Here, for you only." But soon this strategy began to fail, as his mind began to boggle at the choices his desire to serve placed before him: Is it worse to have no nose or no ears? No toes or no nose? He realized the absurdity of trying to measure and compare the suffering of others. Even more, he realized the futility of trying to do something for everyone. With a whoop and a laugh in the face of the nose-less and toes-less, he walked briskly down to the river dropping coins into the bowls of whichever of the beggars he happened to feel empathy for. Simple and clean.
Contemplation can get us to the place of recognizing a shared identity and predicament with other members of the universe, beings and others. This is the first battle, in which selfishness is confronted. Out of that recognition arises compassion, and very naturally there follows a desire to serve. But when we turn our faces to the world to try to manifest this desire to be of help, we very soon join this pilgrim in the mire of despair, because we realize how truly little we can do. The problems are massive, the causes intractable, the complexities insurmountable.
Spirit sends up a cry, much more heart-rending than the booming self-importance of "MeMine." This time it is a plaintive "NoWay" – there is really no way to serve. To give here is to deny there. To provide a little of this might prevent them from getting some of that. Every possibility carries its own confounding shadow.
The intellect joins the battle, explaining this, arguing away that. It fights and fights, parrying and countering, until it falls exhausted. Despair rises up tall, ready for the kill. Poised, frozen, savoring the moment of victory.
When from over the hill with a laugh and a whoop, bells on toes and floppy hat, comes that crazy fool You-and-me who can’t figure it all out and certainly can’t explain it, but who trusts a strong intuition. He strolls right up to that old Despair, and pulls out that proverbial secret weapon. He laughs and laughs and laughs until the peals of his laughter are like thunder and they strike the Despair down.
This is where the truest service originates. Not in guilt, or responsibility, or obligation, but from the intuitive and light- hearted recognition that generosity is simply the only choice. Selfishness and despair are felled by love and joy. Intellect is not destroyed. It lives on to serve by offering to measure and restrain intuition, so that every act of service might be as meticulous, careful, loving and effective as is possible.