The desire to be of service is strange, and the more I learn about mental health, humans, and life, the more I believe it is a desire (when stated) that deserves examination. There can be a lot of baggage, internal and external, that goes with the desire to be of service. Often we are unclear about what we really mean, intend, or are after, in our desire to serve. That lack of clarity can come through in the results of our service. Sometimes, we take on a “saint,” caretaker or soother role in our family because we had to for our survival, and we are still unconsciously living out that story in our adult life. Sometimes we make ourselves of service in a very public “communal narcissist” manner because some very vulnerable and unloved part feels that it needs to be publicly and widely seen as “good” and “noble” –typically the ego needs to feel “good” and “right” but this is a goodness and rightness that tips over into a need for a constant narcissistic supply of validated goodness and rightness. Or, we (in the case of privileged, or resourced people) can arrogantly believe that we have the answers or know what is best, and must allocate some percentage of our resources accordingly. I have been guilty, at some point, of at least one of these.
My initial desire to be of service was a little muddled. It was my quarter life crisis. I had a philosophy degree, and one minimum wage job after another, and I spread myself out on the carpet at my parents’ house with my baby boomer dad’s dusty books from the 60s and 70s, and I made weird art. I read Caroline Myss, and my dad’s old Allan Watts, Ram Dass and Suzuki Roshi books, with their crispy, yellowing pages. (There was some Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh wisdom in there as well, to be sure.) I got a scholarship to go to San Francisco Art Institute, based on the weird art I was making, but they wanted me to start at the undergraduate level. I wasn’t sure that I wanted another undergraduate liberal arts degree. I ached and agonized over this decision for what seemed like another year, until I noticed a thread through all these old books. Many of these teachers were saying the same thing, just in different ways. Something like this: The desire to be of service or to alleviate the suffering of others is the truest expression of genuine spiritual realization or attainment. I still had no idea what that really meant, but it sounded correct to me, on some deep level.
So, my initial desire to serve was quite selfish: I was after my own spiritual realization or attainment. (Ha! I’ll let you know how that very possibly misguided endeavor unfolds for yours truly.) I was sort of not quite “sold” on the modern world of American adulting, as it had been presented to me, and I felt like I would prefer a life outside, maybe even way outside (in a monastery, or some kind of dirty art warehouse, if I was lucky enough). A very deep and honest part of me, my soul, decided that there were only two lives I would be willing to accept: a life of service, or the pure life of an artist. Many years later, I have had to own that the “life of service” option represented, at the time, a sort of escape for me, a sort of way to erase myself by erasing my own self-concern, or something. Hmm, healthy.
Fast forward to my first post-grad job in human services. Community-based mental health services involve entering other peoples’ homes, seeing and smelling their homes, witnessing the disarray and the chaos that can sometimes be right at the epicenter of all of our lives. I can only imagine how vulnerable people feel when they have a young mental health professional entering their home as the ‘professional’ or the ‘expert’ in the situation. It must take incredible humility to accept those services with graciousness. Sometimes my clients didn’t want to meet with me. A large percentage, maybe a majority of them, were black. When America looks at me, America sees a very, very white woman. So here I was, Suzy Do-Gooder, entering these people’s homes, as the white woman who had all the answers and resources and was going to help them out. Take a breath (if you’re not vomiting). (Vom comment 100% directed at myself, not at the agency I was working for, which is full of some of the most gorgeous souls I’ve yet encountered in my life, and is doing beautiful and needed work.) We’re going somewhere with this. (It turned out that I had an ancestor from West Africa 6-8 generations ago, and one from India as well, but this is basically untraceable in my phenotype, and too much to cover here. When people see me, they see what is categorized in America as a “white woman,” and that matters for a number of reasons and in a number of ways.)
This is why I say “taking responsibility for my privilege”. If I don’t take responsibility for it, then I will be utterly blind to what I might represent, and what kinds of feelings I might trigger, walking into those homes. Taking responsibility means lovingly acknowledging, “Hey, I was born in America, where having this kind of appearance still means A LOT. It means a lot for me in my own life, and it meant a lot for my parents and grandparents. It still probably means a lot to many of the people around me, because of experiences they’ve had and cultural messages that we’ve all imbibed innocently. It’s not my fault that I was born or have this appearance, and that’s true of everyone, and it’s not my fault that I’ve imbibed these noxious cultural messages, and that’s true of everyone, but we still did. It’s the water we swim in. That does not mean that racism has to be intentional or even conscious. Racism, as Americans, is the water we swim in, and acknowledging that, being willing to look at that and to continue humbly learning and growing will be a lifelong practice.” I even consider it a spiritual practice. Why? Because ego is so invested in being good and right all the time. You have to get to know a bigger part of you that can hold the ego in its discomfort– this part might be called Soul or whatever you want. This stuff ain’t easy but it is worth doing, for love’s sake. I’m thinking of writing a longer version of this called, Being American: A Spiritual Practice.
I even have to own that the publishing world is in many ways a world of whiteness and my privilege got me to a point from which being published was much more possible. I know that because of my white appearance, and that of my family, I’ve been given a leg up, educationally, that allows me to now be in a position to own and run a private practice. I don’t self-flagellate about this. No. I was brought up Catholic, but still. That doesn’t really help anyone. In fact, I think it makes people feel awkward. There’s a way to face the facts courageously, squarely, and with immense gratitude that I have the opportunity to decide (ultimately) how I want to use my time and how I want to be of service. I still don’t think I’m all the way there, but I believe I’ve come closer and closer to the authentic heart of my desire to serve, in more ways than one.
In addition to this, although I consider myself to be pretty sexually fluid (I’m honestly convinced that most people are), I have so far mostly been romantically attracted to men. I also feel pretty copacetic about the gender that was assigned to me at birth. This means that I’ve never had to choose between my authenticity on the one hand, and familial or societal acceptance on the other hand (at least regarding my gender and sexual orientation). I just don’t really have to make that choice in the same kind of way. I don’t have to worry about getting beaten up for holding my partner’s hand in public. If I blithely ignore the fact that that is not everyone’s reality, I am not taking responsibility and I can’t really authentically be of service. Kindness comes from a sort of melancholic acceptance of the fact that you are not the expert on someone else’s experience, that life generally brings great difficulty at some point to everyone, and that there is a great alone-ness that all human beings feel at some point, no matter how outwardly ‘good’ their life is, or seems. Just be an alone-ness meeting another alone-ness with gentleness and curiosity. That’s it.
Although my self-love and self-compassion taglines may seem cheesy, there’s a deeper spiritual impetus just beneath the surface. The old desert fathers used to liken people to spokes on a wheel. The farther within that any individual goes, the more likely they are to actually find their oneness with all the other spokes. The farther out they travel, the more their uniqueness becomes clear. Both are important. But after self-love and self-compassion (or practicing looking inward with compassion and kindness) change your life, at a certain point you realize that your liberation is bound up with everyone else’s. The practices of loving self and loving others become inextricably linked. The one spills over into the other.
I know that I have more responsibility to take, and that I will never be done learning. Perhaps an interesting circle to form here is this: I mentioned earlier that the ego structure is buttressed by ideas of “goodness” and “rightness”. If we are courageous enough to allow Soul to take the lead in our lives, we find that there is a larger, more loving and expansive aspect of Self that is able to hold the troubled ego while it sustains its little blows. I strongly suspect it is the ego that does not enjoy owning or taking responsibility for or looking at privilege because it makes the ego feel somehow not “good” or “right,” but that is not what’s going on here. Paradoxically, one only has to look down the annals of history to see how a fierce, unquestioning attachment to one’s own “goodness” and “rightness” leaves the back door wide open for Shadow to come in and run the show. (The downfall of Daenerys in HBO series Game of Thrones is an example of this perennial pattern.) Although privilege is not necessarily about that, I do want to expand my awareness into my unknown unknowns, and maybe even acknowledge where I am maybe being an ignoramus. I want to because it’s the only way to show up fully as a great soul in this life, which I will continue striving to do. It is all of our birth rights.