On Service and Superhero Skills

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of service lately. It’s come up in a lot of contexts: Public service. Servant leadership. The yogic tradition of seva, or “selfless service”. Military service. Service is about giving to others without needing to receive.  Service is the opposite of greed and self absorption (hmm, why might that be on my mind? Maybe I should quit the news). It is a fundamental good, as far as I can tell, and a foundation of a purpose-driven life. Why? To be of service.

You can be of service through your career, or though volunteer work, or by helping old ladies cross the street. I try to make choices in my life to support this concept of service, but that’s just a concrete and visible piece. You can also enact service through the way you craft your own existence, your spiritual center, your mind, and your body. The life you live can be a service, if you want it to be. You can develop power in these areas of your life and channel it into service.

Something I keep coming back to is that to be the best servant I can be, I need to be strong. I don’t mean that I must be the biggest, strongest, or fastest person in the room. I mean that I cannot serve others well if I myself am broken. I think about strength as part of service because we are in troubled times. We need champions. I don’t take safety and stability for granted. I think there is a non-zero possibility that I will at some point have to physically fight to defend my beliefs, or to stop myself or someone else from being harmed. I prepare myself for this— and this is service. I’m not being alarmist or paranoid. I’m just assessing the situation, and the situation is iffy. If I want to be ready to help, I have to cultivate power in myself. And this is how selfless service makes me think of superheroes.

How I Develop Superhero Skills: Superhero skills are highly useful, functional things that humans can do. They might be physical, or mental, or hell, I don’t know, metaphysical. They take work to develop, but when that work is driven by a purpose (service!), the experience is transformative. Here’s what I’m working on:

Cultivate non-attachment: I want to be ready to respond rather than react to a threat. The best way I’ve learned to do this is to practice meditation. The non-attachment cultivated by this practice is critical— I can feel angry or frightened, and recognize them as feelings rather than being completely beholden to them. I can still think while I am feeling. 

Develop resilience: I spend a lot of time moving my body, and learning not to get injured.  To aid in this, I practice functional movement. When I work on a fitness skill, I want it to be useful. Think deadlifts. Think getups. Think pullups.  Think carries. These translate into things I might actually need to do, unlike, say, moving my leg up an inch and down an inch 100 times in a row (sorry, Barre class). I work to build my strength in ways that help me perform.

Practice skill and mindset: Related to movement, I also train for self-defense. If someone wants to do violence to me or someone else, I need to know how to respond. I don’t like violence. I don’t want to fight. But I am glad that I know how. Some of this is very physical— how to block a strike, how to escape from a choke hold. But it’s also mental: situational awareness, knowing what might be a threat, thinking about what might be a weapon. I’ve gained enormous freedom from fear through this training, which has allowed me to stay present to act or bear witness in situations that might have felt frightening before.  I haven’t laid a hand on another human outside of training, but I think the training I have has helped me stop situations form escalating.

Develop endurance: I want to be able to keep going when things feel very challenging or I’ve been at it for a long time. To develop endurance, I run. Running from something threatening is sometimes the best course of action, but running also increases my stamina for non-running activities. I can put my head down and do something hard for a while, and I cultivated this ability doing things like running races.

Learn humility: I am working on increasing the diversity of the viewpoints I’m exposed to and the media I consume. This means getting out of my comfort zone, getting out of the echo-chamber, and deliberately seeking out the voices of people of color, women, gender non-conforming people, poor people, and others. With this comes a need to be humble about my blind spots, my shortcomings, and mistakes I’ve made in the past. This makes me better able to understand— and serve— a wider diversity of people. 

It’s a shift to think about these kinds of practices not as selfish, but as service. But doing so brings purpose– which elevates everything.

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