In preparing for a speech I have to do in a couple months, I have been reading a short novel by the German writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Hermann Hesse. I had not read Hesse for quite some time. I first encountered him in the 60s, when I was in graduate school. Although he died in 1962, his writings were very popular in the 60s with all the chaos and searching that characterized that tumultuous period.
Hesse grew up religiously in a Pietist family. Pietism is a German version of Puritanism. It is a Reformation movement that focused on feelings (and not just thoughts) and on experience. Hesse also developed an interest in Buddhism and other Eastern religions. His life seemed to be a life-long search for religious meaning. It was for these reasons he appealed so much to the spirit of the 60s and later. It is during this period we see the seeds of an interest in spirituality, rather than religion, begin to take root. In this sense Hesse still seems very contemporary.
He is best known for his works, Siddharta and Der Steppenwolf, both written nearly a hundred years ago. However, the little novel I began reading is entitled, The Journey to the East. Since I know German, I was intrigued by the original German title, Die Morgenlandfahrt. If I were to see this German title by itself, I would translate it literally, “The Tomorrow Land Journey.” But I know the German word, Morgenland, means “Orient.” But if you think about it, Asian countries’ time is ahead of the US. Often in Asia, it is “tomorrow today!”
The Journey to the East is a story about a group search---journey---for meaning. The unlikely hero of the story turns out to be Leo, one of the servants for the group. Early in the novel Hesse describes Leo. “This unaffected man had something so pleasing, so unobtrusively winning about him that everyone loved him. He did his work gaily, usually sang or whistled as he went along, was never seen except as needed---in fact, an ideal servant.”
A little later I hit this amazing sentence and was stopped in my reading. In a conversation about natural laws, Leo says, “The law of service. He who wishes to live long must serve, but he who wishes to rule does not live long.” Leo began to give me a whole new way to think about service, as I am sure Hesse aimed to do to me. In effect, Leo points to a view of servant leadership. This contrasts with the idea of leadership by virtue of power or authority. As servant Leo is driven by something other than his ego.
Leo is a difference-maker by being a servant. He has an uncanny knack for making people and situations better by serving. And for people with their egos in check, this is quite acceptable. But if your ego is front and center---egocentric---serving is the last thing on your mind. An egocentric person wants to lord it over others. Unlike Leo, those folks are not always liked!
I never thought about what Hesse calls “the law of service.” And then his commentary blew me away. If you wish to live long, you must serve. In some sense this sounds like an argument for love. It sounds close to the old adage, “it is better to give than to receive.” People often use this phrase, but I suspect many times people have no clue about the origin of that phrase, “it is better to give than to receive.”
In fact, it comes from the New Testament, specifically The Acts of the Apostles. Acts is the long book that comes right after the four Gospels. Much of Acts details the ministry of the Apostle Paul. In chapter 20 of Acts Paul is traveling in Greece and sends a message to the Ephesians. At then end of this message, Paul reminds them that he worked to support himself. And then he concludes, “In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (20:35)
This ties right back to Leo’s wisdom and advice. If you want to live long, serve. Much of serving is giving. And authentic giving gives without expectation. Real service does not ask for something in return. Serving is not deal-making---an attitude of “I’ll do this for that.” I am sure Leo knew there is a tremendous freedom in service. If you serve without strings attached, you are free. Service of this kind is loving and not coercive.
I am confident that Leo also meant that service not only makes a long life possible. It also makes a good life possible. If I can serve freely, then paradoxically I receive the blessing of having served. That kind of blessing is not an egocentric sense of accomplishment, but a selfless sense of satisfaction. I am aware sometimes it is hard to trust that this is true. Somehow my own insecurities or greed want a different deal. I don’t believe in the law of service.
My experience is the law of service is real. I want to trust it. Finally I have decided I would rather be blessed than win. That’s the law of service.