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"In the Service of Life": When is Helping not Serving?

I was "de-cluttering" my email when I came across this eloquent essay from a participant in a brain injury conference I attended. She had given me permission to share it, but somehow "life" got in the way and I never got it posted. It's time to fix that omission, because this is a very powerful piece highlighting a very important distinction. I have highlighted som eof they bits that seemed to jump out at me while I read, but please share what touched you as well...

When you are a service provider, do you help, fix, or serve?

When you receive services from others, are you being helped, fixed, or served?


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


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 is holy.

If helping is an experience of strength,

fixing is an experience of mastery and expertise.

Service, in the other hand, is an experience of mystery, surrender, and awe.


A fixer has the illusion of being causal.

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 different too.


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 are 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.

Robert & Patrica Johnson
Waglisla, BC
Posted on Tuesday, January 15, 2013 at 13:32 by Registered CommenterDr Karen in , | Comments9 Comments

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Reader Comments (9)

Wow. I found this really deep and honestly a bit hard to follow the differences between fixing, helping and serving and what the outcomes of these 3 perspectives might be. I think when I have been a service provider I have likely completed actions that might be considered mostly fixing and helping -- especially when I was first starting out and in an "unconscious" way - cause that is what I thought my role was. I would like to think as I have grown as a person and service provider that I have or have had moments of serving. I can think of a couple of projects that were more energizing than many of the others.

When I receive services from others am I being fixed,helped or served? I would say all three. I had a doctor's appointment recently that clearly focused on our inequality - my value definitely being less than his knowledge and role. This left me angry. I forwarded a formal complaint to his supervisor and have refused to be seen by him. Generally though - I would say that most folks that I encounter either are trying to help or fix me. I think offering "service" might be the equivalent of our resource level in our roles-- especially in the balance between the EI competencies and the Technical ones - and I know in my own practice I still have a lot to learn.

Great article. Lots to think about. Thanks for sharing.

January 16, 2013 | Registered CommenterPaula Cassin


January 31, 2013 | Registered CommenterMallory Woodward


February 4, 2013 | Registered CommenterHarjit Daffu


February 5, 2013 | Registered CommenterBernadette Gapuz


March 21, 2013 | Registered CommenterDomenica Florio

This was a really great article, I found it very informative and provided me with a different way of seeing my role, not only at work but also how I interact with others I meet in the community.

Thank you for posting this

April 30, 2013 | Registered CommenterPea Benjamin


July 13, 2013 | Registered CommenterTiffani Brooks


July 15, 2013 | Registered CommenterDomenica Florio


October 1, 2013 | Registered CommenterKaren McQueen

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