IN THE SERVICE OF LIFE
By Rachel Naomi Remen
In recent years the question "How can I help?" has become meaningful
to many people. But perhaps there is a deeper question we might consider. Perhaps
the real question is not "How can I help?" But "How can I serve?"
Serving is different from helping. Helping is based on inequality; it is not a
relationship between equals. When you help you use your own strength to help those
of lesser strength. If I'm attentive to what is going on inside of me when I'm
helping, I find that I'm always helping someone who is not as strong as I am,
who is needier than I am. People feel this inequality. When we help we may inadvertently
take away from people more than we could ever give them; we may diminish their
self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity and wholeness. When I help I am very
aware of my own strength. But we don't serve with our strength, we serve with
ourselves. We draw from all of our experiences. Our limitations serve, our wounds
serve, even our darkness can serve. The wholeness in us serves the wholeness in
others and the wholeness in life. The wholeness in you is the same as the wholeness
in me. Service is a relationship between equals.
Helping incurs debt. When you help someone they owe you one. But serving, like
healing is mutual. There is no debt. I am as served as the person that I am serving.
When I help I have a feeling of satisfaction. When I serve I have a feeling of
gratitude. These are very different things.
Serving is also different from fixing. When I fix a person I perceive them as
broken, and their brokeness requires me to act. When I serve I see and trust that
wholeness. It is what I am responding to and collaborating with.
There is distance between ourselves and whatever or whomever we are fixing. Fixing
is a form of judgment. All judgment creates distance, a disconnection, an experience
of difference. In fixing there is an inequality of expertise that can easily become
a moral distance. We cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which
we are profoundly connected, that which we are willing to touch. This is Mother
Teresa's basic message. We serve life not because it is broken but because it
If helping is an experience of strength, fixing is an experience of mastery and
expertise. Service, on the other hand, is an experience of mystery, surrender,
and awe. A fixer has the illusion of being casual. A server knows that he or she
is being used and has a willingness to be used in the service of something greater,
something essentially unknown. Fixing and helping are very personal; they are
very particular, concrete and specific. We fix and help many different things
in our lifetimes, but when we serve we are always serving the same thing. Everyone
who has ever served through the history of time serves the same thing. We are
servers of the wholeness and mystery in life.
The bottom line, of course, is that we can fix without serving. And we can help
without serving. And we can serve without fixing or helping. I think I would go
so far as to say that fixing and helping may often be the work of
the ego and service is the work of the soul. They may look similar if you're watching
from the outside, but the inner experience is different. The outcome is often
Our service serves us as well as others. That which uses us strengthens us. Over
time, fixing and helping are draining, depleting. Over time we burn out. Service
is renewing. When we serve, our work itself will sustain us.
Service rests on the basic premise that the nature of life is sacred, that life
is a holy mystery, which has an unknown purpose. When we serve, we know that we
belong to life and to that purpose. Fundamentally, helping, fixing, and service
are ways of seeing life. When you help you see life as weak, when you fix, you
see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. From the perspective
of service, we are all connected. All suffering is like my suffering and all joy
is like my joy. The impulse to serve emerges naturally and inevitably from this
way of seeing.
Lastly, fixing and helping is the basis of curing, but not of healing. In 40 years
of chronic illness I have been helped by many people and fixed by a great many
others who did not recognize my wholeness. All that fixing and helping left me
wounded in some important and fundamental ways. Only service heals.