Earlier this week I read a blog post about service, and how the author had come under the false impression that real service requires self-sacrifice. I realized upon reading this that I also have been defining service (at least, service on my end) too narrowly. And it’s been messing up my head for years.
I have spent decades serving others. I selflessly served my family, gave away my possessions, and volunteered time and energy that I didn’t really have. I did these things for two reasons. First, I didn’t have a paying job and I tried to assuage my guilt and feelings of worthlessness by proving I had value–for free. If I couldn’t make money I made damn sure people knew I was still useful and not a drain on society. Second, no doubt stemming from messages I got in church, I thought that giving of yourself until it hurt was what good people did, and I wanted to be a good person. After all, Jesus praised the old woman who gave everything she had to the temple treasury. Everything. She. Had. It was a lot to live up to, particularly for someone who didn’t personally have an income.
And so I went along for two decades thinking that being a martyr made me acceptable as a human being.
What it did was alienate me from people, drain all my energy, and make me feel overwhelmed and bitter.
As a society, we don’t value service much. People who work in the service industry are considered unskilled, paid a wage they can’t survive on, and can be treated horribly by the very people they are dedicating their lives to helping. Quite the opposite of what Jesus’s attitude was. Jesus himself was a man of service, and I doubt very much that he would be thought well of if he was alive in America today.
When I left the church behind, in no small part because of the un-Christ-like attitudes of people who claimed to be the best Christians, the notion of self-sacrificial service stayed with me. With every news story I read about someone who risked their life to save another, who gave everything they had to start a non-profit organization to help the less fortunate, or who took a trip to a third world country to build schools and hospitals, I felt immense jealousy and guilt that I wasn’t doing anything like that. Never mind all the hours I had spent giving to others in my community and expecting (and often receiving) nothing in return–it wasn’t enough.
One day I realized it would never be enough.
No matter how much I did, it would never be enough. I could never be selfless enough to feel worthy. And when I read that article earlier this week I understood–finally understood–that giving happens every day in ways I don’t even realize. Giving isn’t about making yourself stressed and uncomfortable for the benefit of someone else, giving is about sharing. The widow in the Bible story made herself destitute in order to give to the temple, which likely had so much money that her gift was not even noticeable. In any case, by giving everything she had, she suddenly became dependent upon others and their tithings, because she was no longer self sufficient. How does that help anyone?
In the same vein, giving all of your energy does not make you praise worthy, it just makes you exhausted and ill. I should know. I deal with chronic nervous system dysfunction, which makes me extremely sensitive to stress. If I had spent all those years valuing my contributions instead of depleting myself trying to be someone I’m not, I might be healthy right now.
Service comes in so many more forms than the extreme of self-sacrifice. Service is also a two-way street. This is a new concept for me. When you serve in a healthy way, it gives you energy and it feels good and natural. Sometimes you even feel as if you are receiving instead of giving. You give because it’s unnatural not to. I had always thought of service as having to be slightly painful in order to count.
I was talking with some friends not long ago, and one commented that it was a wonderful thing that I joined a community band, that I was sharing my gift of music with others. That struck me like lightning. I had never thought of playing in the band as a service before, I was just grateful that others were giving enough to start a band that I was privileged enough be a part of. I felt as if the band was giving to me; it hadn’t occurred to me that I was giving, too.
And giving happens in the smallest of ways as well as the biggest. A friendly smile or kind greeting brings positive energy, which is sometimes much needed. I know that for me it makes a huge difference when I have to call or talk with someone and they are warm and kind. Nobody likes talking to people who are brusque and unfriendly. It really does have a ripple effect. Giving out smiles is an important service that anyone can do, every day.
It’s so much easier to make an impact than I ever imagined. My eldest child recently started waitressing. I get to hear all the time about the wonderful people who left her good tips. She will be moving out on her own shortly and appreciates every dollar. Giving a little more than expected can make a huge difference in someone’s life.
In our culture we hear all the time about what we are doing wrong and how we are not measuring up. It took me a very long time, but I finally understand that who I am and what I feel comfortable doing is enough. I don’t have to be a martyr to be of service.
I have a big heart and will always do what I can, but I will no longer feel guilty or inadequate for what I cannot.