Get your motor runnin', Day 19: The point of service


I've tricked The BF into watching yet another corny BBC costume drama with me. (Heh heh heh.)

This time, it's the 2005 version of Charles Dickens' Bleak House, featuring the endearingly odd Gillian Anderson (who most famously played Scully of American television's The X Files, and who has one of acting's craziest head-to-body size ratios I've ever seen), a lot of really talented British actors like Charles Dance and Pauline Collins ("No, honestly, C.D....") and strange "ch-chunk"-y sound effects and jarring transitional cuts that remind me a little too much of Law & Order, in a bad way. Oh, well; nothing's perfect.

While I'm not entirely certain what it is about the BBC treatments that rings my bell, I suspect it boils down to two things. First, they actually tell the damned story. Second, they pick really, really good stories to tell. There's a reason Dickens and Shakespeare and a few other windy writers are still read, and it's not just because their works are in public domain. They were outstanding chroniclers of the human condition, which hasn't changed much in several hundred years. Circumstances, yes. People, no. And it is both illuminating and a huge, huge relief to have a name put to certain types, and to see them exposed for what they truly are.

Take one of the minor characters of Bleak House, for example. Mrs. Pardiggle. She's a preposterously silly woman who is devoted to her many charitable the expense of her family and to the detriment of those she purports to serve. Her children (rightly) despise her and we're not too all-fired nuts about her, either. Which is, I'm pretty sure, exactly the reaction that Dickens, who was so good at pointing out injustice, even (or especially) where popular opinion was ignorant of or blind to it, was going for. No dummy, that Dickens.

Unfortunately, I think many of us grow up with a dreadful, burdensome, yucky notion of service. It's supposed to hurt, serving is, or we're not doing it right. I think that's...well, wrong. Service may feel uncomfortable (especially in the beginning), and there's going to be some effort about it if you're doing something useful and meaningful, but the idea that it has to be unpleasant or you're not doing it right is a big pile of crappity-crap.

Service is about paying it forward, yes, and sharing our gifts of time or expertise or what have you, but ultimately, it's about helping two parties: the one on the receiving end and yourself. If it's not even, it may be patronage, it may be charity, and it may or may not be helpful, but it's not service, which is made up (in my opinion) of equal parts humility and free exchange. As in, you humble yourself to someone else so that they may prove your teacher, and your service to them is the medium of exchange.

My first inkling of what real service was like came when I volunteered to record books for the blind via an organization now known as Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. I had visions of myself wowing the vision-impaired crowds with my über-compelling narration skillz; the reality was more me learning how little I actually knew about pronunciation and the English language, and fumbling through computer textbooks when I was even allowed to do the recording part. In other words, it was something I thought I'd be good at it, I ended up not being not very good at, and yet I stuck with it because I figured hey, it's supposed to make me unhappy: it's service!

I continued on in this fashion, volunteering for things I was neither particularly adept at nor interested in, because I felt I should. And service continued to make me very, very unhappy, and God was in her heaven, and all was right with the world.

And then, lo, a breakthrough! I had joined a professional organization for both networking and educational purposes, and was being subtly pressured to volunteer. Which I did, on a project that I could see from the get-go was being very poorly managed, whose poor management would most likely cause me a great deal of head- and heartache. At one point, I was groaning about it to a new friend who was a longtime member of this group, and she passed on the greatest bit of advice I've ever heard regarding service:

"I've done it both ways; now, I only volunteer for the stuff I really want to do."


Of course, my first thought was, "Well, who's gonna do all that stuff I don't want to do?" The answer, of course, is all those people who don't want to do the thing you want to do.

Note that I'm not saying one should only do what one is already good at, although that's a fine place to start (and it's always nice to put those talents to good use). Service is also lovely because it allows us to grow our skills and outlook, to become finer leaders or programmers or chefs. Or painters.

And sometimes, to be fair, you need to do a little excavating around that "stuff you really want" part. If you're a voiceover actor and your neighborhood coalition needs people to pitch in to clean and repair the dog park, there may not be a role that utilizes your VO skillz, but the part of you that's a dog owner may say, "Well, I really want a safe, clean place for my beloved Sparky, who has enriched my life in so many ways, to run free," and suck it up and swing a paintbrush. Like that.

But most of the time, there's no need to make yourself (or the people near and dear to you) miserable by volunteering for crap you hate. Love comes from love, and stuff done from a sense of obligation and not gratitude has the stench of duty all over it.

Pun fully intended...


Some notes on Bleak House and service:

You may want to just pick up a cheap copy of Bleak House, as it's quite long although it should be readily available at your public library. You can also read the full text for free, online, via the excellent Project Gutenberg, or listen to downloadable or online MP3s of for free via LibriVox and Internet Archive.

And if you are an actor or voiceover person or just someone who likes reading stories aloud, you may want to look into volunteering for LibriVox, a group that gets individual volunteers to record works in the public domain from the comfort of their own home computers, and upload them to the Internet for all to use. Amazing and miraculous, that!

Image by mikelens via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.