What does it mean to serve, to be of service to others? What does it mean to choose the role of the servant? How does the concept of ‘service’ translate to who we are and how we decide to ‘be’ in this world?
I remember in my junior year in high school I was considering running for an Associated Student Body (ASB) position. I knew I didn’t want to be President and I wasn’t interested in Treasurer either. Vice President and Secretary appealed to me and both were positions I thought I would do well in. My high school, an all-girls Catholic school, also had another position available. This position was ASB Service. Of all the positions, I wanted this one the least, not because I thought I couldn’t handle the responsibilities and not because I wasn’t well qualified (I had consciously been involved in service in different ways throughout my high school career). It was because I didn’t want to be known and seen as “the Service person.” What made matters worse for me was that almost every teacher and dozens of my peers told me I should run for Service, that I would be “so good at it.” Deep down, I knew they were right. I knew that I could help organize and lead retreats, plan specific service-related events on campus and within the community, and, overall, provide strong leadership and mentoring for other students, particularly freshmen and sophomores.
Even though I knew I would be excellent in this position based on feedback I had received over freshmen, sophomore, and junior years from teachers and peers about my service work, I resisted submitting my name for nomination. I actually filled out the nomination sheet for Secretary and was going to announce my decision when I heard that one of my good friends had already submitted her name for Secretary. In fact, many of my friends submitted their names for all the positions except for ASB Service. I found out that they were saving the spot for me (!). Their action was both infuriating and thoughtful. Knowing that my friends and fellow peers deliberately did not submit their names for Service because they thought I was a shoe-in, made me feel a responsibility to not let them down. I submitted my name for nomination and was voted in easily.
In retrospect, at age 17, I believe I was coming to terms with the humility of service. What made me so uncomfortable choosing to run for ASB Service was a deep sense that I wasn’t doing enough. True service to me, even as an adolescent and young adult, meant that I needed to do much more. My experiences felt too easy. For example, going to a pre-school and working with young children one-on-one or in small groups as part of my service hours didn’t feel like service. Even though I enjoyed being and playing with small children, this experience was just another assignment I needed to complete. Whether I was in the classroom or not, I felt like my presence didn’t make a huge difference on the children’s overall growth and learning. I was just another high school student or volunteer dropping in, getting her ‘service’ criteria satisfied, and driving away with all the necessary signatures to demonstrate my ‘involvement.’
Service as a mindset and philosophy meant something to me. Maybe it was being exposed to catechism that included in-depth case studies of specific saints and martyrs. If I wasn’t feeling fully connected to the acts of ‘goodness’ or ‘kindness’ I was enacting or if I wasn’t feeling some degree of sacrifice, then, in my young adult mind, I wasn’t doing my part. Not doing my part was exasperated by being known as “the Service person” on campus. Though my peers and teachers valued my service-related work, especially my shared written personal narratives about spirituality I wrote as part of my service leadership during retreats, I felt like an imposter. I realized that doing service was a far cry from being of service.
Being of service, I understood to a limited degree, at age 17, was a way of life, a choice to live every moment acknowledging Self but making decisions to be of service to others. Doing service, in contrast, could be measured quantifiably through external acts that others deemed ‘good’ or ‘kind.’ Even at 17, I cringed at the notion that people held a stick up to me and measured me as the ‘good kind of service.’ They didn’t know what I was feeling inside. They didn’t have a clue if I was ‘being’ rather than just doing obligatory service. All they could see – as they checked the boxes or signed the papers – were all the external, seemingly meaningful ‘acts’ in which I was involved. The more hours the better. The more ‘impact’ – as measured by how many people I served lunch to – fantastic!
Fast-forward decades later, and I find myself thinking of ‘service’ as an Assistant Professor who is creating courses that are community-engaged. I am actually structuring one course as a critical service-learning course. Critical, in this case, means centering social justice at the core of pedagogy and its enactment or praxis (Mitchell, 2007; 2008; 2014). Service-learning refers to the structure through which a higher education course intentionally centers ‘service’ as “mutually identified and organized service activities that benefit the community and [assist students in] gain[ing] further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of personal values and civic responsibility” (Bringle & Clayton, 2012, p. 105).
What strikes me in this reflection, is how similar I feel to how I did as a 17-year-old, when I ask myself and my critically-minded colleagues if we are actually BEING OF service to the communities we collaborate and work with through our community-engaged work or if we (my colleagues, our students, and I) are only DOING service. In higher education courses, where does merely doing service end and being of service begin? And in semester-long courses that are based on extrinsic motivators (grades, recognition), is it even possible to go beyond only doing service?
For me, the answer lies in the internal shifts that occur within each individual. As a whole, most likely, the majority of my students – when engaging with community members – may only be doing service, regardless of what they write in their journal reflections or say in their final project presentations. Doing service means getting the good grade and being able to say that they ‘know about real issues.’ Being of service, for the few who truly get it, means that their experience and interaction with community members deeply shifts their understandings of who they are in relation to others with whom they are speaking, communicating, and interacting. Being of service means that the external ‘doing’ of service has translated to a knowing. This knowing is the realization that service is not an action divorced from the heart. Service, in its purest form, is being in, coming from, and sharing the heart for the purpose of caring for, listening to, and being there for another without conditions.
Service is akin to Rachel Naomi Remen’s (2000) discussion on ‘charity’ or “ways of giving to others” (p. 86). She tells the story of an Orthodox rabbi who provided her with clarity around these ‘ways’ through different levels of understanding unconditional giving:
- At the eighth and most basic level of giving to others, a man begrudgingly buys a coat for a shivering man who has asked him for help, gives it to him in the presence of witnesses, and waits to be thanked.
- At the seventh level, a man does this same thing without waiting to be asked for help.
- At the sixth level, a man does this same thing openheartedly without waiting to be asked for help.
- At the fifth level, a man openheartedly gives a coat that he has bought to another but does so in private.
- At the fourth level, a man openheartedly and privately gives his own coat to another, rather than a coat that he has bought.
- At the third level, a man openheartedly gives his own coat to another who does not know who has given him this gift. But the man himself knows the person who is indebted to him.
- At the second level, he openheartedly gives his own coat to another and has no idea who has received it. But the man who receives it knows to whom he is indebted.
- And finally, on the first and purest level of giving to others, a man openheartedly gives his own coat away without knowing who will receive it, and he who receives it does not know who has given it to him. Then giving becomes a natural expression of the goodness in us, and we give as simply as flowers breathe out their perfume (pp. 86 – 87).
In the final iteration of ‘ways of giving to another’ we become servants of humanity. We recognize the divinity each of us carries within, in spite of outward appearance or perceived difference.
As educators, I am interested in how we can use these understandings of service to inform our being-ness as we interact with our students, community members, and other stakeholders. To what degree are we willing to be of service and in what areas do we find ourselves only doing service either ‘begrudgingly’ or for the sake of being acknowledged or recognized? Where do we begin, in our own work, to help our students shift from merely doing service to becoming servants to society, to humanity?
These are questions I hope we all ponder seriously as we (re)imagine and (re)conceptualize a world in which we are committed to serving humanity – our children, our communities, and our planet.
With much love,
Bringle, R. G., & Clayton, P. H. (2012). Civic education through service-learning: What, how, and why? In L. McIlrath, A. Lyons, & R. Munck (Eds.), Higher education and civic engagement: Comparative perspectives (pp. 101 – 124). New York: Palgrave.
Mitchell, T. D. (2007). Critical Service-Learning as social justice education: A case study of the citizen scholars program. Equity & Excellence in Education, 40(2), 101 – 112.
Mitchell, T. D. (2008). Traditional vs. Critical Service-Learning: Engaging the literature to differentiate two models. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 50 – 65.
Mitchell, T. D. (2014). How service-learning enacts social justice sensemaking. Journal of Critical Thought and Praxis, 2(2), Article 6, 1 – 26.
Remen, R. N. (2000). My Grandfather’s Blessings. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.