From Deserve to Serve

April 25, 2022

00:00 / 08:08



John and Natasha Deane and friends cleaning the trails around Wildwood Resort and Marina in Granville, TN

I’m Lisa Uhrik and this is the RE: Public Podcast – where we look at the keys to living OUR best lives – and the keys to improving all the relationships you care about, including both the little us and the Big US.  


So what do Mother Theresa, Ben Franklin, John F. Kennedy, John Wesley, four of our five dogs and my Grandmothers have in common?  (That sounds like a joke, but there’s a real thing here.)  


It’s Service.  


It makes a lot of sense that the Peace Corps and the space program formed around the same time in our history.  Action – particularly service action – is core to the way that we grow and develop.  I’m not talking about our physical selves --- I’m talking about our brains – our hearts -- our ability to see new things.  We get our biggest ideas – we do our best work -- when we serve others. 


As a developmental psychologist, I’ve been studying this idea since the 90s --- and there is a TON of research to support what happens when people get engaged in service.  As a graduate student at Vanderbilt I studied human development --- working with the most diverse group of students at the university.  I worked with athletes who often came from difficult circumstances and low economic areas – and I worked with Ross Perot’s daughter and students who would ask “where do you summer?”  All students were required to engage in both a practicum and an internship for the program I worked with --- and the practicum was always in a non profit.  As they went through their experiences they wrote journals and it was my job to read (and code) those journals to see how much they changed and moved.  My coding of the journals was part of my professor’s research and it was really fascinating work because all people – regardless of where they started or came from --- super wealthy or super talented on the court or field --- the majority of these students shifted their thinking in the service work that they did.


This is why Dad always said that the military was such a good thing for someone’s growth – service builds character.


This is why our best actors often choose waiting tables as a side job – service gives them perspective taking. 


This is why youth mission trips, household chores, community volunteerism and chicken casseroles are important.  


Service shapes us. 


Dave and I have witnessed it repeatedly --- most recently on a family trip where we were keeping the youngest grand – a two year old -- for a little while.  She realized that her parents were both gone and started ramping for a full fledged melt down (we don’t see her as often as we’d like).  It was about to get ugly – or at least challenging.  But Dave looked at me with a confident smile, sure of his own brilliance. And then he did this.  He may have even said under his breath, “see I listen do what you say – just watch this.”  Then he did it.  He asked her if she could possibly bring him a cookie.  I added that I wondered if she knew how to put it on a plate --- could she do that by herself?  It was like a magic of calm purpose washed over her… and she was on it!  SHE did not get – or even ask for – a cookie in this moment. And she likes cookies.  She felt good about what she did and then I asked her to help clean up and she was right there.  In it to win it.  She was compelled and centered by service. 


Developmental science shows us that our brains get more agile, and we develop new capabilities – when we serve others. 


This is why programs like Scouts, youth missions, and Rotary are so important.  

For me, 4-H was instrumental.  


From memory…

I pledge my head to clearer thinking

my heart to greater loyalty

my hands to larger service and 

my health to better living --- 

for my club, my community, my country and my world.  (I may have that out of order)  But look at that pledge!  I’m not even in the list!  


Service is an action for my club (my crew, my people), my community (the rest of the people I really care about), my country (a good spark from my small spot) and my world (that butterfly effect).  


I won a lot of awards growing up in 4-H competitions, but when I gave a speech as winner of one of the biggest ones I realized that it was never about the awards but about how working on service projects had served me, helped me and equipped me to understand this truth. 


In my book America Becoming, I explain my theory that we’ve hit the fourth big developmental milestone as a country:  we came through Infancy/Toddler stage,  Childhood, Adolescence and now – we’re entering young adulthood.  This milestone we’re hitting right now as a country is something we all share – no matter our age.  THIS is the moment that we level up and decide who we want to be as we grow up.  Who we want to be right now.  


We are moving beyond conquering ourselves and “living my best life.”  We are interested in flipping the ME to a WE and understanding how we can live OUR best lives together as couples, families, workplaces and neighbors.  We have to be independent “whole” people before we can enter into healthy relationships.  


As Jonah Goldberg put it last week: Hope is a four letter word.  That's a good one.  But I don’t think it’s our best one.  Our best four letter word is Help. To Help. To Serve.  It's hard to mess that up.  But we do -- we use this word and twist the purity and benefits of "serve" into something equally unhelpful. 


It’s this word:  Deserve.  


When we deserve we literally “de” – undo, take down, take apart, reverse --- service.  Almost all crimes start with a “I deserve it” thought… almost all relationship squabbles are rooted in someone saying “I deserve to be treated better… or I don’t deserve to be talked to that way.”  Or “I deserve more… “  


And it’s everywhere.  I bought a gift the other day and the shop owner thought it was for me --- “oh you deserve this!”   


We have become a “deserving” society which is a dis-service to ourselves.  If you think you deserve gifts at Christmas, the magic sort of falls out of them.  If you think you deserve praise, the warmth sort of leaves the praise that you receive.  If you are looking for the respect you deserve, you can never find it.  If we’re trying to sort out how we deserved (or didn’t deserve) the awful thing that happened in our lives – we’ll churn and make no sense of it. 

So many of our wars are rooted in some sort of entitled deserving thinking…. From global conflict to the conflict in our families. 


We talk about what we deserve and we end up in stalemates and circular eddies.  No good can come from that. 


You know what is almost never controversial --- one person helping another person.  

When we make that help systemic and involve government or big churches or organizations it gets twisty and we start debating things like the best use of resources and unintended consequences…


But the antidote to much that ails us --- from the age of two forward – is rooted in service.  

Everyone has a reason for what they do --- justifications and such.  We want desperately to be heard. And then what?  We were designed for action and we were designed for service. 

As John F. Kennedy put it in the 1960s when our nation was a teen “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  


When we do the work of the Peace Corps we think of going to space.  Our brains get bigger and our hearts fill up when we serve. 


So let’s stop all the chatter --- because we’re not getting very far, very fast.  Let’s focus on serving each other. A protest is not progress.  What is progress?  Cleaning something, serving someone (one person), building or making something useful for someone, fixing something that’s broken for someone. 


Talk is often controversial – helping almost never is.