We are most human when we serve

I have been reading Gordon Brown's “Courage: eight portraits,” over the last week or two. It is a fascinating and thought-provoking book. He has chosen to write on eight people who have particularly inspired him.

I have been reading Gordon Brown's “Courage: eight portraits,” over the last week or two. It is a fascinating and thought-provoking book. He has chosen to write on eight people who have particularly inspired him.

He knows that there are many more such people. All of them have ennobled the human race, given much to humanity and possibly, also suffered much. Indeed the stories of these people have moved and encouraged me. It is heartening to know that there have been and still are people of real courage.

“Courageous” is an adjective that can be applied to many people and particular acts of people in many different times and situations. Recently watching the courageous efforts of two men to save a third in a car swamped and swept away in the floods was of a high calibre of courage. Gordon Brown has been fascinated by courage since an early age. He quotes Winston Churchill who said: “Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others.”

Maybe. My fascination has been with service. The eight people chosen by Gordon Brown included Edith Cavell, the nurse born in Norfolk as well as Robert Kennedy of the United States of America.

Both were courageous and both served, it was Robert Kennedy's brother, John, the president of the USA, who noted in his augural speech that we should not ask what our country could do for us, but rather what we could do for our country. This attitude is, I allege, at the heart of being human. It is also at the heart of love. It is, indeed, at the centre of Christianity.

Of course today there is much abuse and misuse of language. Only the other day I listened to the reporting of the death of another British soldier in Iraq. Again I heard the refrain: “He served his country well.” In the news there has been much comment also on the “Rescue Services.” Men and women have worked hard and selflessly to help the victims of flooding and serving others. One then begins to think of the National Health Service, the Civil Service and even the world of “service industries.”

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Can all these different nuances of the words “service” and “serve” and even “servants” be linked in any meaningful way? Perhaps. Yet my thesis is that as with courage one may be able to discourse philosophically on its meaning but for it to have any substance it needs to be personalised or individualised. Thus Edith Cavell is a woman who courageously worked as a nurse and courageously tried to help allied troops escape the Germans during the first world war.

So there needs to be a distinction between the person who in a restaurant serves you a meal, or a civil servant who works in the tax office and the person whose life is one of service to his or her community, or particular individual is one a vocation, the other a job?

Service is the selfless giving of time and talents to or for others. Thus again Edith Cavell who thought not of herself but of those for whom she could give.

Francis of Assisi hits another note when he records the paradox of service: “It is in giving that we receive.” Thus he followed our Christian master, Jesus, who came “not to be served but to serve,” and who went to the limit by giving his own life.

That pattern of giving, of service is one that marks the full human being. It is, I believe, a potential possessed by each and every human being. Service is possible for those sick, housebound or in pain. They can serve through the example of perseverance, endurance and even belief in the value of life itself however hard it may be. I know a remarkable woman who has been bed-ridden with multiple sclerosis and many concomitant problems who inspires me. I have known of many sick who have given others fortitude and hope. I have seen wheelchair-bound persons bursting with life and vitality. They serve the human spirit.

I have seen so many who without thought for their own comfort, time or rights have put others first. It is not only the “great and good” who have this virtue but also, and especially, the ordinary. Readers may think that I am confusing the meaning of service or am muddled by its definitions. They may think that I am over extolling the virtues of the “unknown hero or heroine.” I am but I also making a simple point. That point is that greatness, true humanity is in service.

Jesus Christ also noted that he was seen as “Lord and Master” by his disciples. He was but his action of the time of this remark was the washing of his disciples' feet. The evangelists claimed that Jesus said that the Gentiles lorded it over their subjects. His disciples were not to do this. Thus one of the titles attached to the Supreme Pontiff, the Pope, is “servant of the servants” of God.

If we each, individually, can get over our own self-centredness, our own feathering of our nests and realise what is truly at the core of our purpose and being as humans then we will have a world of peace in which soldiers need not die, there need be no loneliness or hunger and thirst and, to quote the prophet Isaiah: “Swords will be turned in to plough shears.” But for this to happen on a global scale it is for each and every one of us individually to personalise service.

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