Tag Archives: service

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.

Service — The Bad

Bjorn holds up some shoes that need their mates during our shoe-sorting service project in Berlin. (Photo by Jammie Karlman)
Bjorn holds up some shoes that need their mates during our shoe-sorting service project in Berlin. (Photo by Jammie Karlman)

Let me preface this post by saying that no service project that aims to truly help people is bad — unless by “helping people” that means helping self-interested parties to wider profit margins by taking advantage of free labor from naive volunteers that work like dogs.  That sort of service project is not just bad,  it’s ugly.

I believe they are also sometimes called internships (ba-dum-pum!)

Seriously though, I have found a surefire way to sour any service project: Take the focus off of others and turn it on yourself. I can almost guarantee that thinking about the self makes any service project less fun, less satisfying,  more intolerable and more likely to make you lose it in an embarrassing, foaming-at-the-mouth bit of frenzy.

For example:

Bjorn and I decided to check out donation sorting. A service organization needed help with organizing goods that were given to them. The goods were either given to the homeless/impoverished or sold in their second-hand stores which cycled the profits from the sales into more programs helping the needy.

I pictured myself holding up items of clothing and commenting on their cuteness and/or tittering over their excessive ugliness with the other volunteers. All would be lightness and gaiety. Oh, the times we would have!

When we showed up at the appointed meeting spot, we were led downstairs into the basement. We were shown through a rabbit-warren of rooms until we reached one that was piled floor-to-ceiling with dusty, stuffed, plastic garbage bags in the front. In one corner, boxes upon boxes overflowed with old shoes.

We were told the shoes needed to be matched, then the pairs separated into three categories: shoes for the needy; shoes that could be sold in the second-hand stores; and shoes that needed to be thrown away. Plus, they needed to be sorted for size and gender.

We were kindly offered drinks and a radio. Then we were left there. By ourselves.

It was eerily quiet. The walls were made of concrete blocks and the one tiny window near the ceiling was taped over with plastic. A lone, naked bulb cast light for the entire room. Although we were underground, the room felt like it was growing warmer.

About 15 minutes later, someone came to check on us. “How are you doing?” she asked.

“It’s sorta hot in here,” I said, steam fogging up my glasses, beads of sweat dripping from my hairline.

“Yeah,” she said sympathetically, “the heating system for the entire building runs through this room.”

Jammie sorts shoes during a service project in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)
Jammie sorts shoes during a service project in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)

The heat got worse. And so did my mood. Sorting shoes is a dirty, nasty, time-consuming process. First, we dumped a box of shoes onto the ground. Then we picked through them, looking for matching pairs. When we found one, and if the insides of the shoes looked OK, we put it in a box of the right size and gender. Labels had to be made by hand and taped onto the boxes. Many times, the shoes did not have their size printed on them, so we went from box to box, comparing them. Within minutes, my hands were filthy and curiously (also sickeningly) sticky.

Bitter thoughts crept in. This is just poor people management, I fumed. Why would they have newbie volunteers doing the worst jobs? They should start new volunteers on easy and fun jobs to get them hooked. Then, once those volunteers are committed, the organization can ask them to take on harder tasks. Better yet, why not have the people they actually pay (we found out a person at the donation center gets paid part-time) do the dirty work??

Longingly, I thought about places that do volunteering right, like the Feather River Hospital in Paradise, Calif. Volunteers there commit to only four hours a week (we were working a six-hour shift in one day), eat for free in the cafeteria, have a volunteer banquet held for them four times a year and some of their volunteer activities seem to require doing little more than smiling at people.

Still ruminating furiously over my perceived ill treatment, I turned an eye on Bjorn. He was humming happily, glancing over at the movie playing on his iPhone and doing much, MUCH less work than me, I thought.

Bjorn seemed to sense the change in the winds. He is an extremely perceptive man, with acute social and emotional intelligence. Plus, he may have noticed that I was glaring at him with enough intensity to rival Superman’s heat vision, mouth in a straight line, breathing heavily through my nose.

He deftly suggested we take our lunch break.

The change in environment and the food (of course, the food) helped to calm me down. Plus, it gave me time to reflect on some things:

1.) Just because all true service projects are good, does not mean that all are a good fit. It is wise to know yourself, your capabilities — and to set boundaries in accordance.

2.) Even with the above being said, you should still try new things and stretch yourself. I would not have learned the above if I had not tried this service project.

3.) Like I said at the beginning, focusing on self — how you’re feeling as opposed to how to help others — will make any service project, no matter how fun, a grizzly chore. After we got back from break, I began envisioning the people that would receive the shoes I had just matched. I imagined the comfort and protection the shoes would give, and how happy the people would be to have them. I started to smile again.

4.) Even if you absolutely hate the project, joy can still be found in a job well done. As I looked at the stacks of boxes around us, the order being created out of the chaos, I felt the  warm glow of satisfaction.

The second time we sorted shoes, it went much, much better. It went so well that we are almost done. We probably have only one more shift left before the project is done. I can’t say that I’m going to miss this project, yet I am glad we decided to stick it out.

But I’m pretty sure I’ll never look at a pair of shoes the same again.

Bjorn stands in front of stacks of boxes of sorted shoes after the first day of our service project in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Jammie Karlman)
Bjorn stands in front of stacks of boxes of sorted shoes after the first day of our service project in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Jammie Karlman)

Everything Popular is Wrong

Yabusame – Tim Ferriss from Kevin Rose on Vimeo.

For all the books I’ve read on work-life balance and crafting an ideal existence, no author has caught my attention quite the way Tim Ferriss did when I finally bought his first book in 2008.   I’d spent months laughing it off because of its ridiculous-sounding title: The 4-Hour Workweek. One day when my curiosity got the best of me I picked up the book and started reading.  I finished it quickly.

The 4-Hour Workweek turned out to be the closest thing I’d found to a liberation manifesto for over-worked office-bound yuppies who have a sick sense that life is slipping away as they sip lukewarm coffee at directionless committee meetings.  Tim Ferris’s core concept is what he calls “Lifestyle Design”.  What it boils down to is the need to define the ideal lifestyle (read: liberation from 9-5) and then, using the tools in the book (near-fanatical decluttering, starting your own automated income stream, etc), to achieve personal goals that he encourages readers to set unrealistically high.

His logic for such ambition?  “Doing the unrealistic is easier than doing the realistic… It’s lonely at the top.  Ninety-nine percent of people in the world are convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for mediocre.  The level of competition is thus fiercest for ‘realistic’ goals, paradoxically making them the most time-and energy consuming…. Having an unusually large goal is an adrenaline infusion that provides the endurance to overcome the inevitable trials and tribulations that go along with any goal.”

I love Tim Ferriss.  I could spend the post trying to sell you on him but I want to focus in on some of the key principles that I like best and that I think best support the idea of putting an unusually strong emphasis on the importance of service in life.  The idea starts with his quoting Oscar Wilde (in The Importance of Being Earnest):  “Everything popular is wrong.”  From this starting point Tim builds a case for challenging commonly-held assumptions and the arbitrary crap that convention and “the way things have always been done” tend to force upon us.

His first rule for those that choose to join him in bucking convention, is “Retirement is Worst-Case-Scenario Insurance”… “It is predicated on the assumption that you dislike what you are doing during the most physically capable years of your life.  This is a nonstarter-nothing can justify that sacrifice.” I love this insistence on creating a life that can be fully enjoyed in the here and now rather than sacrificing everything for a pot of gold at 65.

Tim Ferris defines laziness as “to endure a non-ideal existence, to let circumstance or others decide life for you, or to amass a fortune while passing through life like a spectator from an office window.”  This resonates with me on a very fundamental level.  My parents were idealists who gave up financially lucrative work opportunities to work as missionaries in Africa and Asia for over 10 years.  Growing up in Asia with parents that were very intentional in choosing what they felt was the “ideal existence” while rejecting life lived from a sanitized office window certainly had an effect on me.  I definitely agree with Tim Ferris that just following what most do, going with what numbers define as popular, is a mistake.  It is life on cruise control – bland, lifeless and over-processed.

But what am I doing personally to reject crippling convention and embrace a life of intentional service?  This blog is one of my first steps.  I also took two years out of my life to work on service projects. The first time I was 16 and I left my family to work on service projects in the Philippines and Sweden.  The second was a year I spent working for an international school in the UK.  As a result of these two lifestyle experiments I developed a taste for nonprofit work. It has soul.

What about you? What are your ideas for rejecting the norm in favor of a life of service? If you are up for looking at unconventional ways to live a fuller life, I am excited to share ideas with you over the coming months as CultureMutt takes a close look at social innovators and service junkies that all have in common rejecting convention in favor of savvy, global do-gooding.

Bjorn Karlman

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