How service to others restores and develops our sense of purpose.
Can Service Save Us? This is the question Time magazine explores in its cover story this week. In his inspiring piece, columnist Joe Kline uses returning American Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans as a test case to analyze the holistic restoration that service seems to confer on those who make it a part of their daily lives. Through both anecdotal accounts and hard research, Kline transmits the jaw-dropping impact that regular regimens of civic service have on the lives of war veterans, especially in overcoming post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He extrapolates from there to build a case that what is common to veterans is also common to ordinary citizens who have never set foot in a war zone: the facts show that community service has a therapeutic, almost transcendental effect on those who engage in it.
But what exactly is service saving us from? Kline operates under the assumption that we know, but never fully – or even partially – addresses the implicit question. He does however hint at it: service seems to save us from a lack of purpose.
The reason why American war veterans are a perfect microcosm to narrate the impact of service in restoring purpose to our lives is because many of the features of a soldier’s existence (exposure to external threats, promoting the greater good, sense of mission, etc.) mirror that of a civilian, only on steroids. Certain features of life are heightened in the soldier’s world due to the intensity of his environment; consequently, they become more felt by him, especially when they are absent. So paying attention to how the soldier is affected when he re-enters society can be indicative of what could be – has been – is – happening to us, only on a more muted level.
Sadly, we often (unthinkingly) write off any potential of shared experience in our minds because veterans’ experiences seem so different – and their problems so much more acute – than ours. But the fact is, the returning soldier re-enters society much more sensitized to our culture’s stimuli than we; our senses having been partially numbed due to persistent exposure (the closing scenes of The Hurt Locker come to mind, especially when Sergeant William James finds himself in the cereal aisle (3:50)). It would be shortsighted, therefore, to discount the potential for the soldier’s experience to reveal truisms about life which have long since receded from our field of vision. In this respect, what is true for the veteran is true for the civilian, so we had better pay attention.
Kline notes that civil service has an outsized effect on the lives of veterans because it restores a sense of mission and purpose to their lives. Every soldier has a stark sense of mission. No matter the daily (at times, mundane) tasks he undergoes, there is a clear sense that they all contribute to an undertaking that transcends himself. But when he returns to civilian life, that overarching sense of mission seems elusive. Perhaps it’s clear then why veterans tend to find renewed purpose in public service: it gives them a cause greater than themselves to devote themselves to. It provides an outlet for self-sacrifice the likes of which they were used to in combat (albeit in a more understated way).
But a clear sense of mission isn’t the only feature of life that places the soldier on the extreme end of the human spectrum. Their environment also begets extremism in another, very different kind of way.
No one knows community like a soldier. When a person is regularly thrown into life and death situations, community becomes both what one lives for and what one lives by. Knowing that the community is sustained by his life (or death) gives him purpose. In looking out for his own life, he is also protecting and promoting his company’s best interests (Alexis de Tocqueville called this “enlightened self-interest”). The height of enlightened self-interest, both for the soldier and for the civilian, is in devoting one’s life to the pursuit of virtue, which is exemplified in the sacrifice of one’s life for the sake of his comrades.
I think the remarkable degree of life that civil service seems to give to veterans points to something deeper about the human condition. Namely, that we were made both to live in close community and to serve others within and outside of that community. The lack of a clear sense of purpose isn’t the only reason why war veterans have difficulty adjusting to civilian life. It’s also because the intense community to which they have grown accustomed is suddenly replaced with an environment where individualism reigns.
Whether or not you believe service is a means of salvation, there is no denying the fact that human beings were made to serve others. But sustained, meaningful service cannot exist at a distance; it must take place in the crucible of the relational bonds forged in community. The soldier knows this well.
Community provides the impetus for us to act. The more we know a person, the more we become wrapped up in his/her welfare, and this motivates us to serve him/her in whatever way we can. We grow to desire the best for him/her – even if it comes at our own expense – and we long to see him/her flourish.
Indeed, it is just this kind of community that causes people to devote their lives to a particular cause. If you’ve ever heard people reflect on what it was that first drew them into the causes they are passionate about, they will most likely point to a relationship of some kind that altered their life’s mission.
The intense community in which a soldier finds himself presents a picture (albeit imperfect) of the ideal community in which we were all meant to thrive. It is a community characterized by virtues of devotion, courage, humility, self-sacrifice, commitment, and love. A soldier takes this for granted, and understandably so. He forgets its power until he is removed from it and thrown into civil society where such communities are no longer a given. Replicating the characteristics of a soldier’s community – whether it’s more defined (as in a monthly study group) or more amorphous (such as one’s neighborhood in a sprawling city) is no easy task; it takes tremendous intentionality on the part of the individual.
Likewise, true community takes unwavering commitment. It’s not something that one can drop in on at one’s convenience and then withdraw for a period of time. Rather, true community makes demands on the individual and holds the individual accountable to the community’s welfare. It becomes a fixture of one’s life; it becomes woven into life’s fabric.
Our communities range across the spectrum. Whether it is by locality, age, race, gender, faith, or occupation, we all find ourselves in communities that vary by size and type. Surely these communities will have different levels of relational intensity, and that is to be expected. But do we strive to make our communities mirror the soldier’s in terms of the virtues they command and the commitment they demand?
I’d like to continue exploring this theme of service in my next post. I’ve already touched on why a narrative of service is foundational to a democracy, but, having recognized its consequential impact on American society, why does this animating narrative seem lost today? And why is it so hard to recover?
-Originally published here on Philanthro.Pe