Happy to Serve

Richard Rohr is one of my favorite authors.  The Franciscan heads us a Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque.  I have met him a couple times, but cannot call him a friend.  I have used his books in my classes and students generally find his thinking to be challenging and rewarding.  Since he is about my age, I know we have shared similar time frameworks, even though we have negotiated those from different perspectives.  I read him regularly.

Recently he posted a piece that had an initial line that riveted me.  Rohr said, “The only happy people I have ever met are those who have found some way to serve.”  I almost laughed out loud, not because I thought it was funny, so much as I found it such a bold statement.  I certainly know many people who have served and who are happy.  But I was not sure the bold statement from Rohr was fully accurate in my experience.  Sure, I thought, there must be some people who serve and who are sad?  And surely, there are happy people who have barely served a day in their life.  I wanted to pursue this a little more.

The first thing I wanted to ponder is whether you can be happy and hardly ever serve?  I know plenty of people who have not served very much.  It occurs to me to differentiate authentic service from being made to do something.  This helps.  I know many groups have a “service component” in their endeavor.  Even a football team can have a “service day” as part of the early season team-building exercise.  I am not belittling this, but I don’t really count this as service.  It is required and it is a onetime thing.

My college now has a “service learning” component in the graduation expectations.  Again, I think this is a good thing, but I don’t consider it service in the same way as the person who voluntarily puts himself or herself at the service of another.  A student doing service learning might be happy, but the fact is she or he is doing it because they have to do it---it is a course requirement.

I do think people can be happy and never serve.  But I doubt the happiness is deep and long lasting.  Life eventually gets ornery and sin, sickness or death can quickly and surely erode superficial happiness.  I think this is what Rohr begins to give voice.  There are superficial happy times.  My birthday is usually one of those times.  But the following day is not my birthday, so the happiness fades.

The other angle I also want to explore briefly.  Simply serving may not make me happy.  In saying this I realize we need to be clear about service.  It is a tricky word.  If I go to a restaurant, I get service.  The waiter is there to serve me.  To me it is service; to him it is a job.  He might be relatively happy doing his job---serving.  Or he might hate it.  I recognize that what we call service needs to be clarified.

This is where Rohr is helpful.  As I read a little further in his reflection, I realize he helps me see how we can use the idea of “service.”  Rohr says people involved in authentic service “are not preoccupied with self-image, success, and power.”  That thought is incredibly insightful.  It actually introduces the theme of intentionality behind service.  The kind of service about which Rohr talks is service that does not serve my ego.  It does not aim for my success.  And it is not about helping me get power or augment my power.

This enables me to see service in a way that is different than the restaurant server or the student doing service learning.  Rohr’s perspective helps us see the life of a Mother Teresa or Gandhi.  It helps me appreciate the many almost nameless Quakers and others I have seen in my growing up days.  These are the quiet saints among us.  And so often, they really are happy.  This was true, even to my young eyes, which could not understand “what was in it for them?”

The truth behind my question was either nothing was in it for them…or everything!  At first glance, they were serving and likely would get nothing out of it.  It was true they would get not ego boost, success or power.  Paradoxically, some of them did become famous---like Mother Teresa.  But that certainly was not her goal.  But what I suspect most of them got was happiness.

I have lived long enough to understand and appreciate Rohr’s insight.  If you want to be authentically happy---deeply and for long term---serve.  You don’t have to become a monk or a doormat.  You don’t have to serve for sixteen hours a day.  But serve.  Find a cause or someone who needs your care, your effort and your commitment.  Do it for the right reasons---because it needs to be done.  Give up your ego, your expectations and all other needs.

Simply give yourself. That is what service is.  Service is a gift of self.  In that sense it is like love.  And paradoxically, the more you give, the more you get.  Give yourself away and be happy.

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