Misunderstanding Service

I overheard a guy at the mall today talking about his past.
“Yeah, I do not like community service. Volunteering, that’s another thing. My moms did that. But I do not like community service.”
“What’s the difference?!? You gotta love those ladies there! They were always hooking us up with food!”
“Yeah, but whenever that punk PO tells me I gotta do something then its just punk.”

That’s a problem. In the ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of young people, strike another one up to the side of evil. Somewhere along the way the notion of “service” managed to become a tool of oppression, alienation, and punishment. Somewhere along the way it went from “Walk a mile in my shoes” to “Walk along with me” to “Help me up this hill” to “Push them up the hill or else.” That’s just not right.

We could look back in history to find the roots of all this.

“The sage does not accumulate for himself. The more he uses for others, the more he has himself. The more he gives to others, the more he possesses of his own. The Way of Heaven is to benefit others and not to injure. The Way of the sage is to act but not to compete.” – Tao Te Ching (600 BCE)

“You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.” – Marie Curie (1867-1934)

“Joy can be real only if people look on their life as a service, and have a definite object in life outside themselves and their personal happiness.” Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

“This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in.” Thoeodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)

Yeah, we could scan over all of those quotes, get the idea that they’re each saying something nice about service, and continue on in the discussion. Or we could carefully look back and find the heart of what the words were trying to say. The Tao spoke of “The Sage”. Madame Curie wrote of Hope; Tolstoy, of Joy; Roosevelt of Goodness.

These are angry times when cynicism makes selflessness passe, and apathy is the socially engrained reaction to years of alienation, segregation, and inequity. They are reactive times, too: None of this is without cause.

My friends Pam Toole and Vernia Cornelia Price taught me about “missionary ideology”, the underlying assumptions behind a lot of service activity. These assumptions are driven by the racist, classist, and adultist underpinnings of popular culture. What all that breaks down to is that there is a fundamental flaw in the way that community service is taught, imposed, and assigned to people.

However, there is an inherent disconnection between that analysis and the words of Dr. King, who implored us saying,

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

What does that mean for the young person living in America today? African America, Latino, white, hetrosexual, homosexual, working class, wealthy, homeless, convicted… what does Dr. King implore us to do?

Rise above our narrow confines. What do you think?

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