“Serving others”

In one of my favorite episodes (Season 5, Episode 6) of The West Wing, President Bartlet loses his sense of how vitally important the presidency is. He has flown to Oklahoma to lend whatever support he can to a tornado-stricken area. Of course, he understands when he goes on that trip that it is because of his status as President of the United States that he is of any help at all. But when he gets to the disaster scene in Oklahoma, he has the chance to meet with “real people,” not Washington D. C. people, and to help to comfort and reorient them.

service 4President Bartlet has been on edge since his daughter Zooey was kidnapped and held for ransom. She was found and rescued, but the event left Bartlet shaken and his marriage in tatters. Going to Oklahoma to “serve people” was what he wanted to do more than anything and he found it so rewarding that he wanted to keep on doing it.

But that wasn’t his job.

His real job required him to meet with foreign diplomats and to keep our alliances together and to continue the dialogue with the Congress. All those things are the actual substance of his “serving people.” None of those things felt like “serving” to someone in Bartlet’s condition.

That brings me to today’s question, which is, “What does it mean to serve others?”

The Reverend Spencer Parks was called on this year to deliver the Maundy Thursday sermon at our church. [1] He got up and walked to the pulpit, picked up a towel, a basin and a pitcher of water. He took all these down to a table, poured the water into the basin and draped the towel over the edge. Not a word did he say. Then he went back up to the pulpit and reassured us that he was not going to conduct a foot washing service, as Jesus had commanded ,[2] but he wanted us to think about it while he was preaching.

Then he delivered one of the best Maundy Thursday sermons I have ever heard, but even so, my eye kept drifting back to that towel and the bowl of water. It helped me reconsider what “serving” means. I think that is why my mind was drawn back to President Bartlet whose clear duty was to serve in a way that was not personally fulfilling to him and to forsake, for that purpose, a kind of “service” that met the needs of his heart at the time.

The Maundy Thursday tradition is that Jesus’s disciples should be willing to take on the service 2duties of a servant rather than to compete with each other to be the top dog. As always, you get real clarity when you specify the opposite of what you are trying to say. When you say, “Not this, but rather that,” you have made the meaning of “this” much clearer.  So it is with “serve others” and “rule over others.”  Look at the alternatives in this passage from Matthew 20:

“25 But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that among the gentiles the rulers lord it over them, and great men make their authority felt. 26 Among you this is not to happen. No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave…”

Not this, but that.

I see the value of the dichotomy—not this, but that—in the context of Matthew’s treatment of it, but applying it to a broad range of situations as if it were a principle that ought to be applied everywhere seems like a misuse of the occasion to me. Certainly Jesus’s followers should not be struggling and abusing each other to win the top spot, but what, really is the alternative?

I would like to propose that the alternative–truly serving others– is doing what needs to be done. President Bartlet didn’t show humility by wandering into the kitchen of the emergency center in Oklahoma and offering to scrub the pots. He showed humility by getting back on the plane and going back to D. C. where his work awaited him.

As the Bartlet illustration makes clear, there is nothing servile about “service.”MCHpyramid.png When he agreed to go back to being President of the United States, he agreed to take on the authority that being of service required of him. Flying back to Washington in Air Force 1 doesn’t look humble, but on this occasion, that is exactly what it was.

Here is a figure I heard about for the first time yesterday. It is called the “public service triangle—at least you can find this illustration by googling that phrase. Imagine that “serving others” was a notion represented only at the apex of the pyramid. The formal designation you see is “direct health care services,” but a more telling way of characterizing it is in parentheses below. It is “gap filling.”

Gap filling is crucially important when there is a gap to be filled, but do we really want to say that people who provide the other services—enabling services like purchase of health insurance; population-based services like immunization; infrastructure building services like policy development—are not serving others. How do you think the apex of the pyramid got that high?

So here is a modest exercise. Imagine that there is a job you are called to do. You have the ability to keep a fleet of antiquated cars and ambulances on the road. No one has the ingenuity and experience you have and everyone benefits from your skills; the drivers benefit, the victims benefit. But you come to feel that the work you are doing is not adequately “humble” and “serving others” requires humility. So you give up your work as a mechanic and take on the cleaning up the facility where they bring in the drunks every night and the people who have overdosed on drugs.

Is that crazy? I think it is.

I see “serving others” as the kind of thing you can’t identify by looking at it. It doesn’t require that you set aside your own desires unless your desires interfere with the effectiveness of your service. There is nothing necessarily exalted or humble about what it looks like. “Serving others” means either meeting their needs as persons or meeting their needs as agents—people who are identified, for our present purposes by what they are trying to do.

And because the “meeting their needs” standard is so varied, there is no way to identify “serving behavior” just by looking at it. One of the best known results of many years of study of small groups [3] is that someone needs to lead and someone needs to repair the relationships that are damaged by the work. I call those leaders and healers.

service 3Of these roles, which is best characterized as “serving others?” Neither, if you follow my argument this far. The person who is a natural leader, but who lays those preferences aside to take up the role of healer, is serving others. And so is the person who is a natural healer and takes on the role of healing the casualties that are the natural part of the small group process. It costs the leader more to serve as a healer. If you count his willingness to pay that cost as meritorious, then he has more merit. But he has not served more or better than the person to whom it comes naturally.  The confusion I am trying to oppose is graphically represented in this cartoon.

And vice versa, of course. The natural healer who moves into the leadership position because it is needed is serving others at some cost to himself. But he is not “serving others” better or more honorably than the natural leader who takes over leadership.

You can’t tell, in other words, by looking. The confusion of “service” with “menial tasks” is a perfectly natural confusion if you make the cost to the person serving a part of the definition. But I’d urge you not to do that.

And I think that is why I like that West Wing episode so much. President Bartlet takes on all the rigamarole of office—the marine guards, the secret service protection, the public honor shown to him as the current incumbent of the Presidency—because those are the things that go with his position of service.  They help him serve the people he is called on to serve. He can like them or hate them—all modern presidents have done both—but he accepts them because they help him do his job.

[1] First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Oregon.
[2] The Latin mandare, “to command” is the source of the Maundy in Maundy Thursday.
[3] Robert Bales, of Harvard, is the name long associated with these findings. I found out today that before he was Harvard Crimson, he was an Oregon Duck, like me.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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