Service with a Smile
cheerfulness helpfulness right action right intent service warrior spirit
My first reaction was not what you’d expect from a loyal, helpful, dutiful son. Out loud, I wondered how he could expect me to have no plans whenever he needed my help, and internally I was shocked that he should dare spring such a request on me without at least three days notice.
Then I reminded myself that even if he had given me three days notice, I would have forgotten he’d asked in the first place.
Well then he shouldn’t put himself in a situation where he would rely on me, thus making me feel guilty if I didn’t help him out. I felt that my time was worth more than his little errand.
Oh, how immature this all sounds now that I’m writing it out. I was starting to sound like today’s self-important kids.
On the way to the service station, I was reminded of a scene from The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, which takes place at a service station, incidentally. Socrates, the mentor, explains that service to others is the highest calling. It occurred to me that, instead of begrudging my dad this favor, I should be happy he asked me and gave me the opportunity to help him out.
Instead, there I was feeling indignant, and I dare say, entitled.
The Mechanics of Service
My stated ideal is one of service to others, but my mindset apparently doesn’t always follow my actions. With my family, I have a tendency to speak my mind and share my negative responses, even when I end up acting helpful.
The result is that I sometimes give the impression of helping people only begrudgingly and with much coercion. In a way, this is worse that refusing to help at all.
And so, I have been thinking about the importance of synchronizing your mind and your actions with your higher ideals.
In Buddhism, this is termed right intent and right action. It’s good to have right intent but wrong action, as when you want to help someone but end up hurting them instead because you failed to account for circumstances or performed your duty incorrectly. It is not really commendable to have right action with wrong intent, as when you help someone only for the gain it brings you, or because you act out of guilt rather than genuine helpfulness. It is ideal to have both right intent and right action, genuinely wanting to help others and having the know-how and the resources to actually do so.
To achieve either right intent or right action, you must train your mind and your body. I’ve spent a long time training my body, with the stated goal of being strong and capable in service to others. However, it seems that I still have some work to do in the compassion department.
Helping for the Wrong Reasons
I know I am not the only person with this problem. In a capitalistic society, there is an ingrained habit to always be looking out for oneself. We help each other, but frequently there is the implication that we will get something back.
So what are some of the wrong reasons we help others?
- To get a favor owed. This may not even be explicitly stated, but sometimes we help out so that, somewhere down the line, we can say, “I did this thing for you so you have to help me now.”
- To feel good about ourselves. Perhaps we want to think of ourselves are ‘helpful people’. Helping for this reason is more in service to our own self-image.
- Explicit gain. Sometimes doing someone else a favor has an obvious and immediate reward, such as housesitting so that you can have access to a nice TV set.
- Guilt. We can help others to avoid the feeling of guilt that comes from refusing our family and friends, or because we feel guilty for not being so eager in the first place.
- Power imbalances. In families especially, sometimes we do favors because the person asking has power over us, either material or emotional. We can feel like not helping them will result in us getting punished in some way.
The above wrong reasons are not totally black and white. It is fine to enjoy the perks of helping others out. I enjoy taking roadtrips and the company of my friends, but that doesn’t mean driving with my friend to West Virginia to help him pack his stuff was totally selfish.
The Right Way to Help
When I have felt most fulfilled performing a service or a favor for someone else, I have been personally invested in whatever was the task at hand. There was no longer the feeling that the errand belonged to someone else, but rather that it was my concern as much as theirs.
I think this is the best way to help others. Once you have taken on a task, you should perform it as if you’d done it on your own initiative.
This only works for me when I don’t think about it. I get together with a friend, they ask for my help, and I say, “ok, let’s do this!” From then on, it’s my goal as much as theirs. This tends to happen when I’m helping people move into or out of their houses, but I don’t see why I can’t think that way for other favors as well.
Of course, part of helping the right way is knowing when you can’t help, and being clear about that so the other person can either reschedule or find someone else. Vacillating, making the other person feel guilty, or trying to do too much will get on other peoples’ nerves. If you’re too busy to help effectively, but commit anyway, you won’t be able to do a good job, will be late, and will generally cause more trouble than if you’d simply said, “I’d love to help, but my day is packed and I think it’d be safer to find someone else.”
Creating the Helpful Habit
Wouldn’t it be nice to actually enjoy helping people, instead of only doing it because you feel like you have to? So how can one train themselves to be helpful not only in action, but also in mind?
From my experience helping my dad drop off the car for service, it seems like all that is needed is a bit of perspective.
- Instead of, why does he always put this burden on me? Think: He must see me as a very capable person to be able to do all this.
- Instead of, doesn’t he have any respect for my time? Think: He must see me as the kind of person who is willing to drop everything to help someone out (which is a good thing).
- Instead of, why can’t he do this on his own? Think: He trusts me to handle this well; or he likes my company.
- Instead of, why is he bothering me with this? Think: He sees me as a reliable person who he can count on when he needs to.
- Instead of, this isn’t that important. Think: He wouldn’t ask me unless it was important to him.
Once we align our mindset with the actions of being helpful, we can actually take joy in helping other people out. Them asking us a favor becomes a kindness to us, as well as an opportunity to make someone else’s life easier, which after all, is the highest calling a Warrior can have.
Do you have any tips for turning burdensome favors into pleasurable pastimes? Share in the comments.