Service — The truth

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For the past few weeks, I have been enjoying the use of a thin, black vinyl raincoat. I never thought I would like an item of clothing this much, but it has provided a warm, dry shelter more times than I can count already, and it doesn’t look half bad on me, if I do say so myself. Besides being useful, stylish and indispensable, it was also wholly unexpected.

Here’s how I got it:

It was the last week of our donation sorting project at Stadt Mission. We had finished pairing and sorting the mountain of shoes the week before. As you may recall (but if you don’t, here’s a handy link), this project had not been one of my favorites. It was dirty, nasty, hot, isolated work and I was beyond relieved that we didn’t have to do it anymore. Instead, we were given the task of sorting coats that were to be given to the homeless and/or needy.

Surprisingly, the job was not so much about sorting as throwing away. Apparently, the organization receives so many donations that many of the coats had to be removed to make room for the new ones.  We were given very specific instructions. Coats with buttons (when you’re really cold/old/disabled, it is harder to button than zip), coats that didn’t look modern, and anything that had the slightest stain/rip/deformity was thrown into trash bags.

We must have filled at least 20 bags. At first it seemed like a huge waste of clothing. But the more I thought about it, the more I was touched by the thoughtfulness inherent to the instructions. Not only did they provide for the physical needs of the homeless/impoverished, but they also aimed at preserving their dignity.

During our break, the other workers called us into the main room for  drinks and snacks.  A rack of beautiful, real fur coats was in the room. I am defenseless against soft, furry objects and couldn’t help moving over to it to pet the sleeves.

One of the head volunteers (the donation sorting is run by a mother-daughter team) noticed and said, “As a goodbye and thank-you gift, we would like to give each of you one item of your choosing.” We could choose from anything they had down there. They literally had tons of stuff of every item imaginable. Not to mention those fur coats, which were worth at least 100 euros each (and that was the discount price they were to be sold at, not their original ones).

The offer was tempting but we balked. It just felt wrong. We had been doing this service project to help others, not ourselves.

We vigorously protested and hit upon the fool-proof argument that because of luggage restrictions, we couldn’t take anything. They kept pressing us to take something, at least one of the coats. We countered that as we were going to India, we wouldn’t need them.

Finally, the other head volunteer produced two new, black, weatherproof jackets. She pressed them upon us and we couldn’t say no to her (she is a Mom, after all). They were thin and light enough to refute our luggage concerns, and she said, we would need them.

She was right. Since we received our jackets about 3 weeks ago, the weather in Berlin has turned from sunny to rainy, from warm to chilly. That jacket has become my go-to outerwear item.

But I cherish that jacket not only because it protects me from the elements, but because it also serves as a reminder to me. When I see it, I don’t just see its color and shape, I see the kindness of the gift, that people wanted to take care of me despite my protests. I see that people were looking ahead into my future and trying to provide for my needs. I see that people literally fought to show their appreciation for me.

When I look at that jacket, I see the truth about service: When you serve others, you help yourself more than you know.

Self involved

In light of the above statement, some may conclude that service is inherently selfish; because you receive so many benefits from helping others, it is not truly selfless. From there it’s a hop, skip and an insanity jump to thinking  that you must make yourself miserable so that others can be happy.

I reject the notion that in order to perform real service you can not be as happy as the person you performed the service for, that you must make them happier than yourself. First of all, who can measure such a thing? If I am smiling and they are smiling, how do I know whose joy is greater?  If I am laughing and they are smiling, is it not condescending and incorrect to think that their joy is not as great as mine?

And why must there be a monopoly on the peak of happiness? Is it fair or even logical to think that because I or someone else is at the peak of happiness, no one else can be?

(Although if at the end of “helping someone” you are bubbly and cheerful and they are miserable and crying, or vice versa, I would say it’s a good bet real service did not occur. Real service does involve empathy.)

Real service: The enigma within the paradox within the swirling vortex of confusion

I believe it is possible to do good things for bad reasons. By that I mean: doing things to help others because your end goal is really about helping yourself, whether to curry favor or to look good, etc. But in the end, that is not real service.

Real service is about taking the focus off yourself, and doing things because you are truly thinking about others’ needs and how to  help them. In doing so, you can’t help but improve yourself as well.

It’s a paradox that still manages to surprise me. I guess because it seems so oxymoronic.

The message of society today that is subtly and not-so-subtly enforced seems to be: If I put others before me, I will suffer. It’s dog-eat-dog. Everyone must be in it to win it — for themselves.

Most everyone says: Of course you should help others! But the real subtext is: Help others—but only to a point, don’t let them get ahead of you and definitely don’t do it if it causes you discomfort in any way.

But Jammie, some might say, isn’t it possible to do good things for the right reasons and just wear yourself out? To be so attentive to the needs of others that you neglect yourself and end up feeling and being worse off than before?

To that I say, if you were truly trying to serve others, you would know that a mentally and physically healthy you is in the best position to help others. If you are working yourself to death, I would suspect there are other motivations fueling you. Real service spurs you to grow and to improve.

Common good

Many, many people have told me they admire what Bjorn and I are doing and that they could not do it themselves. But the truth of the matter is that everyone can.

Real service is not all big projects in exotic, foreign locations but the quiet acts performed in the details of daily life.

Real service is empathy and action based on it.

At the heart of real service is doing for others what you would want done for you.

So I guess those people who say that service is not self-less are correct, in a way. Your self must be involved.  You must give yourself to others to perform real service. You must involve your love, your concern, your time.

But in return, you get more than you thought possible. While gaining happiness for yourself should not be the end goal, it is a hallmark of real service.

Truly, a life of service is the life best-lived.

11 thoughts on “Service — The truth”

  1. That is a really versatile jacket. I’m glad you got it . . . but I cannot believe you did not take a fur! I’m pretty sure I have seen you pet random strangers’ fur coats without asking. I am not into fur, but I am so impressed that you were able to resist such a generous offer. That sounds like a great service project. It’s amazing that there are so many coats donated in good condition.
    Jennifer recently posted…Workout InspirationMy Profile

    1. Jenn, you do not know how much I was laughing when I read the line that you’re pretty sure you have seen me pet random stranger’s fur coats without asking (for the record: You have. :D) I just couldn’t take one, it would be too weird. And seriously, one of those coats alone would definitely take us over the 50 lb. luggage restriction. Those things were heavy!

      And “right??” about the coats. Almost all of them were in good-as-new condition, and there actually were coats in there that still had the tags on them! The people in Berlin sure are generous.

    1. Thanks Carol! I did think, what if a person wanted horrible things to happen to themselves and so inflicted it on others? But then I realized, a person like that has no empathy with others and is not thinking about the other person’s best interests or needs, so it is not real service anyway.

  2. Thought-provoking post Jammie. Congratulations on your well-deserved jacket – not just a prize for your service but true and genuine appreciation.

    You bring up some interesting thoughts on the subject of service. Should we serve even if we ultimately benefit ourselves? I think the intention is important as you point out and the ideal situation is serving others because we want to do good in the world. And if we feel good from doing it, why the heck not? Actually, what if people started doing charity to feel good and did a lot of it? At this point, I think anyone doing any good, regardless of intention, is good to go.

    If you decide to volunteer and help simply for a letter of recommendation, for pay, to impress a boss, I’d say go for it. Why not right? It’s not ideal but we do need more people doing good in the world. And sometimes when you do work for selfish reasons you get into the true spirit of giving.

    And yeah, I don’t buy that, ‘I don’t have time for service’ line – we have time for things we think are important! We can each serve from our smallest of ways anywhere in the world.

    Glad you guys are out there doing it and challenging others to step up as well.

    1. Hi Vishnu!
      That is a good point. I do believe that it’s possible to do work for selfish reasons and then have a change of heart and experience the spirit and benefits of real service. In fact, I bet it happens all the time.

      However, I don’t believe that doing service to make yourself feel good really does make you happy. If any good feelings do result from such service, they tend to be short-lived and ultimately, the “service” ends up being unrewarding. In my experience, I have found that when I serve others so that I can feel good, what I am really seeking is a.) validation from others; b.) assuagement of guilt; c.) feelings of superiority.

      I have found that this kind of service is more likely to make me feel unhappy because if I am doing it for a.), I will feel angry and taken advantage of if people don’t show me the amount of appreciation I think I deserve (which is likely to happen.) If I do it for b.) I am likely to exhaust myself and feel stressed because how can you quantify how much work will make you feel not guilty? Then there’s the added factor of feeling guilt for doing something good only because you felt guilty. It sucks all the joy out of the service. When service is done for c.), I am sure to be humbled mighty quickly, mighty harshly and end up frustrated and angry.

      Any way I look at it, serving others just so that I can feel good is likely to end up with me feeling bitter and burned out. That is why the paradox of “real service to others increases my own happiness” surprises me so much. If I get bitter and burned out trying to serve my own needs, why would trying to help other people make me happy? But somehow it does.

      I also want to sound a note of caution about doing service for the letter of recommendation or to impress a boss. People can tell, they somehow know, when you are not doing service with their good in mind. It can lead to tension and distrust; if you do it long enough, to miscommunication and outright fighting. You may be doing acts of service but sowing seeds of sadness and negativity. And really, who needs more of that in the world, especially when words and actions can have such long-lasting and far-reaching consequences?

      But you are right: People can change, and do things for the right reasons. And if people had to wait until their hearts were in the right place to do service, I highly suspect very little of it would get done. So consider this post and rather lengthy comment (sorry about that) more of an exploratory tale about the many facets of service, rather than a stance against doing service for the wrong reasons.

      So let’s saddle up and serve, people! :)

  3. This is a beautiful post. I think Chris Guillebeau put it the best when he said “You can do good things for others and yourself at the same time.”

    There doesn’t need to be some weird divide between the two. Besides, if you hated the service you were doing, wouldn’t it make sense that you would put less of yourself into it?

    You guys are doing great work. Looking forward to reading about your future forms of service.
    Kevin Cole recently posted…Let’s Crush The Fluffy Self-Help BullshitMy Profile

  4. Hey, I stumbled upon your site from Razwana’s blog. I love the idea about help others but I truly believe that this help must come from a place of sincerity, not for personal gain.

    You must help (or service) someone for their benefit, not ours.

    Science has already shown studies that the most altruistic people live longer than self serving people so maybe that is all the proof we need?

    Another point, by being kind and helping people at every opportunity you will never be alone in this world. That’s worth it by itself!
    jamie flexman recently posted…4 Terrifying Life Lessons We Only Learn As We Age (and how to accept them)My Profile

  5. Hi Jammie,

    I’m new to your website and found that first post intriguing. There’s something really interesting to be said about ‘selfless service’. We are made to feel bad about giving to others if we receive something out of it – but if you consider that we are all in fact connected – all arose from the same place and will go back to the same place – then a gift to another is a gift to yourself, and why shouldn’t it be??

    Equally a gift of love to yourself enables you to give more to others – so it is Also a gift to others.

    The only thing I would baulk at is at the fur coats! Animals were made alongside humans in order to be loved, not killed and made into a coat :-(

    Lots of Love,


  6. Thank you Jammie,
    You really hit the nail on its head with this blog which I liked a lot. A life of service is a life of true meaning . Our greatest example is He who came to serve us all and gave His life for us.

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