It’s Time to Get Real About Your Service Work
Moving from self-shame to self-love
There was a time not so long ago when nobody believed in me. When I held a vision of what my life might be, but many of my loved ones could not yet see it or share in it. They only knew the person I had been up to this point. Could not envision who I might one day become. Looked at me with blank eyes as I shared my potential. Yawned when I described my mission. Fidgeted when I framed the arc of my life. There is little so lonely as not being joined in your dreams. So I had to hold my light like a firefly. Cupped in my palms. Desperate to dazzle, but just yet glowing.
The greatest service we can do this world is live our lives to the fullest. Embody every ounce of our essence and our values. Manifest our mission. Bring forth that combination of talent, skill, and experience that is unique to us, and use it to the hilt. When it comes to service work, false modesty helps no one. This is not the time to demure and hide behind the coattails of others. Instead, step into the spotlight and sing your song, such that they can hear it in the back of the hall.
I first found this light years ago, with my then partner at a 12 Step retreat for sex addicts and their spouses. For some reason they asked me to speak to the full group, to lead a session about healthy sex, of all things. To share my experience, strength, and hope about a topic that was still so mysterious to me. In those days when asked to serve, I always said yes. Even though I had no idea what I was doing. No idea what to expect. I just knew that I had this light. And that I had to share it. That I could pull this off, even if none of my loved ones believed in me.
I can still see it all so clearly, as if that past moment is preserved in the living present:
I walk to the whiteboard and look over my shoulder: “So what do you want to talk about?” I ask the guys, half-joking.
We are gathered together in a tattered church basement, yet they sit huddled around me, as if waiting for some kind of halftime speech. Something to buck them up and send them off, back into the world that has rejected them. So they might resume their fight.
There is a desperation in their big bodies, as they look up at me. They are both angry and seeking consolation. These sex addicts, who previously might have triggered my arrogance and disdain, but now somehow seem both imposing and tender.
A few of them fidget, sensing I have nothing prepared. Almost feeling sorry for me.
And then someone shouts: “Just tell us a story!” Others look at the floor and bite their nails. Wondering when they can leave.
“Sure, but what do you really want to know?” I respond, hoping for a hook.
I turn back to the whiteboard, and jot down a few discussion prompts. The guys warm to me slightly, and offer some suggestions. I add their ideas, feeling a subtle shift in power. As if I’m the one now holding them.
But they have not yet noticed the change. They titter anxiously, eager to move on. Assuming my defeat but not yet wanting to be too cruel. That will come later.
Suddenly I turn to face them.
My words are electric, and immediately they are rapt. As if nobody has ever talked like this to them before. Treated these big, burly men like little boys. Boys who might yet be made whole. Could still inherit a past that might have been, had something gone just a little differently.
I have never seen faces like this. Almost like dolls: mouths empty as saucers, eyes wide with surprise. Some men bend forward, clutching at their knees. Others rock in their chairs.
I don’t have a clue what I’m saying. What I have summoned. Brought forth. Just that it’s brilliant. That for this one hour in time, something seizes me, and I am luminous.
The words tumble out of me, and dance like stars.
I have no idea how any of this has happened. Just that it could not have happened any other way.
Afterwards they cheer. And then, one by one, come to cry in my arms. Forming a line. Dozens and dozens of them. Each a hairy tangle of tears. These rough men, many of whom have committed the most heinous of crimes. Some even court-ordered to be here. Pried out of their straight world and dumped into this cauldron.
They don’t know what to make of me, yet somehow have listened. Have seen past my faggotry. Heard past my feminine voice. Ignored all the cocks I have sucked.
They reach for me, begging for more. Don’t even know what they want. Just that they must have it. Won’t rest until they can get back to the incantation, that moment of mercy, when we were one.
I’m desperate to help them, and yet I’m spent. Once again am nothing but me.
Eventually they give up, filing out of the room. On to their next session. Not daring to linger any longer.
But what I remember most is their eyes, blazing with lightning that must yet land. And hours later at dinner, overhearing their amazement, as they brag to my partner.
His face crumpled, head shaking in confusion, that this must all be some mistake.
Most days we remain unseen. We just don’t have the capacity to peer into each other’s souls and hold our true potential. I won’t see all of you and you won’t see all of me. And that just has to be OK. It simply means that it’s incumbent upon each one of us to shine. Not necessarily to take the room, but to permeate it with our radiance. To attract those that feel inspired. This is the essence of service work: less to impose our will on the world, than to embody our spiritual essence such that we might manifest our greatest good.
There is a paradox at play here: we are all in this together, but nobody can do this work for us. Our personal growth and development journey starts with our individual efforts. Our transformation. We may join with others in benevolent witness, but our personal work is ours alone. Even when we collaborate, we bring our personal work to the table, and then use it as the foundation for shared experience, learning, and growth. Our personal work is the soil in which the roots of the community tree are planted, fostered, and fixed. In that way if we cease our personal work, the community tree will wither and wane.
Our first work is with, for, and by ourselves. But what is it all for, unless we can then be of service to others? What good is a spirituality exclusively practiced in isolation? What a desolation to do this alone. We are social creatures by nature. It is our human design.
If anyone could have been an island, it would have been me. And I tried, oh how I tried. I shut myself off from the world and hid in my bunker. But still there I was. And invariably as small as I made my life, there was a spark. A tiny spark of loneliness. A longing for others. Just when I thought I had outrun it or successfully hid myself away, I would turn a corner only to face it again. Confronted with the reality that I must live life and life’s terms. Which means in community.
To live in community means to live in service. One does not exist without the other. Some of us first learn this when we experience being part of a family unit, and are required to subjugate our moods and whims. Some of us practice our service as part of a team, which requires us to hold the greater good above our own needs, whether in sports, music, theater, school, etc. We then get our first jobs, where we are again forced to work in teams. Later we might start our own families, which require constant sacrifice. At some point along the way we cultivate enough sense of self and togetherness that we long to altruistically extend ourselves in service.
Don’t get me wrong. We should not wait to be of service. For there is no magic moment when we will one day have it all together. But we are wise to move slowly while we find our footing, lest we give more than we can afford at the risk of our recovery. I have often let my eagerness get the better of me. Made unrealistic promises and commitments at the expense of sustaining my self-care. Rushed in with blind enthusiasm. Blindly repeated old patterns. A fool in the fetter. Only to have to apologize later and change course.
Life is not about eliminating our mistakes, but about reaching out with joy, sometimes making mistakes, and then cleaning up our messes. That is the essence of ownership. Not the ownership we take of items, but the ownership we take of our lives.
Ownership is the natural consequence of empowerment. Taking ownership and becoming accountable is another way of standing tall in the world. A way of claiming our space. Of being authentic and real. We can demonstrate ownership in all facets of our lives: relationships with our loved ones, professional relationships, and anybody in our community. The second we attempt to pass the buck, we are handing over our power.
The most effective way we can demonstrate ownership for our actions is learning how to apologize effectively. We each make hundreds of mistakes a day. But how often do we take the time to own up to them? To learn from them. And grow.
Here’s what to do when making an apology:
- Express your sorrow: “I’m sorry for…”
- Own your guilt: “I was wrong when I…”
- Name your specific wrongs: “I did x, y, and z…”
- Articulate the impact of your actions: “I know that I hurt you when I…and it sounds like the consequences were…”
- Make amends: “What can I do to make this right?” (and then do it)
Here’s what NOT to do when making an apology:
- Don’t use “if statements”: “Sorry if I…”
- Don’t try to shift the blame or defend yourself: “I know I did x,y, and z, but you…”
- Don’t use the passive voice: “I’m sorry you were offended…”
This process can seem time-consuming, cumbersome, and uncomfortable at first. But it’s a skill, not a talent. It can be learned, honed, and improved. And even more importantly, the results will speak for themselves. I think you will find when you take the time to thoroughly and vulnerable own you actions, you will garner more trust from your loved ones, co-workers, and most everyone in your social orbit.
In this way, ownership is an act of service. You will be most efficient and effective in your service of others when you are in command of your life. There are many forces that shape our lives, most of which are completely outside our control. So taking command of your life is less about determining outcomes than understanding your place in the world and shining with all your might. Knowing where you both end and begin, and having the courage to unapologetically embody that entire space.
As you refine your practice and cultivate a space for service work, it’s time to experiment with your efforts. This is the fun part! You get to try all sorts of avenues as you explore the right fits for your time and talents. Seek opportunities that fill your cup while improving the state of the world. Or at least one little piece of it. There is no need to find causes that cost you more than you can give. There are no extra points for martyrdom. And the point of self-sacrifice is not undue deprivation or hardship, but the momentary abnegation of self, as you enter the collective good. When we work, our self falls away. We enter a state of flow, where we are all one.
It is unhealthy and impossible to attempt to permanently inhabit this realm of unity. We are designed to dip in and out of it, as we balance self with oneness. Temper togetherness with differentiation. In the same way that there are no enlightened people, only enlightened actions.
So as you source opportunities for service work, be mindful of your capacity: logistically, physically, intellectually, and energetically. Here are some further guidelines to help ensure you only give what you can afford:
- Availability: how many hours a day or week do you have to give to your service work? Do you have a regular schedule or a flexible schedule? How will you balance this new commitment with your other existing commitments?
- Requirements: what type of opportunities are you seeking (in other words, what are your requirements?) and what qualities are they seeking in their volunteers, staff, and assistants? Do you need any additional education, certifications, or credentials in order to qualify for open positions or opportunities?
- Rewards: what portable equity are you hoping to earn through this opportunity? Not all service work need be for free. Volunteering is laudable, and it’s also perfectly equally laudable to be well-compensated for sharing your gifts with the world. If you do volunteer, you might still receive all sorts of other compensation for your efforts, such as experience, recommendations, the ability to augment your résumé or personal portfolio, the chance to grow your personal or professional network, etc. Or perhaps you’re not looking for any specific rewards, other than the satisfaction of service. And that’s OK too. The point is to do some self-reflection, so you can make a mindful choice and then clearly and honestly communicate your aspirations.
- Morals: does the mission of the organization you want to serve align with your morals? If so, this work might yield multiple benefits. In addition to enhancing the community, it might also embody and bring you in alignment with your own mission. If the organization’s mission does not align with your morals, you will likely experience conflict at some point in your service. Think twice about this opportunity, since your time and energy might be better spent elsewhere.
- Ethics: how do the organization’s mission, vision, and values align with standard best practices and industry mores? Are they held in high esteem by the community and their peers? Or have they had challenges they have had to address? If so, how and when have they addressed them? Ensuring you save your energy for organizations that align with others in their category will set you up for success.
- Culture: how well do you like the other people in the organization? Do you feel like you can be all of yourself and still fit into the team? Or do they require you to shrink and self-censor. Remember, all things being equal, culture always wins. It’s unlikely you’re going to be able to change an organization’s culture, so if it’s not a natural fit it’s probably best to apply your efforts elsewhere.
- Unintended Consequences: as a sanity check, what might be some of the potential unforeseen impacts of your work with this organization? Are you unintentionally over-committing, which might thereby force you to reduce your efforts elsewhere? Are there any personal or professional risks for aligning with this organization? How will your work impact your body, mind, and spirit? Might the impact you make in this organization inadvertently and negatively impact other organizations or causes you hold dear?
I like to start with the easiest decisions first. For instance, why even address moral concerns if the service opportunity is outside the hours in which you are available? Or it requires more of a time commitment than you can afford to give? Combining criteria like this with your own self-study and meditation, as well as the counsel of your loved ones and trusted advisers, will help you make healthy and mutually-beneficial decisions regarding where best to put your time and energy for service work.
Were there an ending to your personal growth and development, service work would be the capstone. But the reality is we are forever works in progress. Changing, evolving, growing, deepening, learning, failing, succeeding, synthesizing, and integrating. There is no finish line, and no reason to wait for any particular milestone or time frame to being your practice of service. The key is that you learn your assets and liabilities. Understand your gifts and limits. Get real with what you can afford to give. Harness all that you know. So you can start improving your life and the world immediately. Right here. Right now. Today.