Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Service (with or without the smile)

When he spoke to the SKS last week, Fleet Maull had said that "service work is an essential part of a spiritual path -- not just a good idea, not just a by-product, but an essential part of the path." I think most spiritual practicioners would agree . . . in theory. But the only question is: what qualifies as "sevice work"?

Say "service work" to the average American college student and their minds jump to one of three or four categories of charitable activity: soup kitchens, homeless shelters, Habitat for Humanity, and maybe hospice. They think Mother Theresa: helping people at the absolute bottom of the heap. And why not? Isn't it just, that our impulse is to serve "the least of these?" And the people working in those realms, the Mother Theresas and Fleet Maulls of the world, have testified to the powerful experience of making a human connection to people radically different from oneself. When you serve those who you aren't even especially likeable, you discover both the unity of the human condition, and the divinity of love that transcends mere preference.

But I can't help but notice that so much of the charitable service that has sprung up in the world is not about serving people far removed from our circumstance. It's usually just the opposite: we spontaneously want to serve those who are most like ourselves. If (God forbid) my son was killed by a drunk driver, I will feel instant solidarity with anyone and everyone else who has lost a child, and spontaneously want to help them in their need. No medical charity ever sprang into existence without someone's child or spouse falling gravely ill. The recovering alcoholics reach out to other alcoholics. We can't help ourselves: once we see ourselves in other people, those are the ones we want to help.

If you are serving others, and transcending your own egocentric perspective in the process, then I suppose that's spiritual. Fleet would certainly agree that mindfulness and compassion should be manifesting in your everyday life, and changing the way you relate to your spouse, your kids, your coworkers. But is it really spiritual to "serve your own?" If you're kind and helpful to to the people who surround you . . . is that enough? Complacency could so easily creep in . . . I sense that its called service work for a reason: it ought to be stretch, going beyond the bounds you normally live in.

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