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Service With a Smirk

An anonymous reader writes:

May I be so bold as to offer a topic of discussion? “The Value and Effect of Service.” Sometimes, receiving service in the church exacts a rather high psychological price.

Perhaps my concerns are a little too close to home, as I strive to deal with yet another seemingly medically-inexplicable yet definitely physiological malady which has relegated me to “scooter status” (three wheeled motorized wheelchair). I am finding, though, that there are many who are so eager to serve, to demonstrate their willingness to sacrifice for others, that they are trampling on the psychological need for self-sufficiency and its companion, self-efficacy. Why is it that when we offer to take someone to church or on other errands that we feel it is then our right to pry, second-guess decisions or courses of actions, and even force our will on those whom we are serving? ‘Tis hard enough to find the fine line between accepting help gracefully and becoming dependent and a burden.

I can’t help but wonder how other sisters who have needed help over the years feel about this. I’m especially concerned about those sisters who rear children with disabilities who prefer to “go it alone” because they are so tired of being judged as inadequate parents by those who may be “well meaning” but totally clueless.

Jeannie says:

From the beginning of time, we see scriptural evidence of insincere service. Whether Cain or the New Testament hypocrites fasting openly for public recognition, those doing their “alms before men” have always and will always be with us. “Demonstration,” as you have noted, is the key issue here, and it clearly suggests a motive other than true charity. I can’t imagine too many things more uncomfortable than being captive in a car with some “well-meaning” zealot doing a 15-minute makeover of my life.

On the other hand, many of us who have been on the receiving end of long or short-term help have been awed and humbled by devoted, sincere service. Maybe the answer is in educating our sisters on the “do’s” and “don’ts” of courteous charity.

Just as we sometimes need to sensitize our sisters as to how long a baby should cry before removing him/her from a meeting, or how and when to enter a concert in progress, it may be very helpful to open a discussion on service etiquette. This could be done in any Relief Society meeting and be a recurring theme as the opportunity for service presents itself. Prying, second-guessing or forcing our will on others is just about as far from the motto “Charity Never Faileth” as Christ is from Satan. It harrows up a perpetrator-victim scenario that negates the Spirit and consequent blessing from even the most “well-meant” act of service.

In the interest of fairness however, it would be appropriate to say that sometimes the burden of “education” must fall on the shoulders of the person receiving the service. No one in this situation has to take what is being shoveled at him/her, even if served on the most “righteous-sounding” platter. With a few kind, but well-chosen words, super-counselor can be gently persuaded to save the advice for her next newspaper column.

I’m really hoping that your experience is the exception, not the rule where service is concerned. I have known of and been myself, the recipient of some of the most selfless acts of charity on the planet. These acts have restored my faith in all mankind and made me fall to my knees in gratitude. It will be interesting to see our reader responses. Thank you for the great question.

Kathy says:

Dear Sis:

Thanks for opening this dialog. I think it is very important and appropriate for us as sisters to be just a bit less reticent when discussing issues this close to our hearts. I think everyone who reads our column will be able to remember a vivid example of both of Jeannie’s scenarios.

Let’s remember together, for a moment. Was there a time when you thought you were being offered a pleasant gesture of fellowship, only to learn that you were actually being interviewed, adjudicated, sentenced and rehabilitated all in one brief “outing”? How did that feel? How about the opposite pole? Can you recall a time when you were with a trusted friend who made you feel loved and supported, offered you needed comfort and maybe a good laugh or a well-placed swift kick without assuming any sort “one-up” posture in your relationship? Think about the way that feels, for just a moment. It’s pretty self-apparent; but it’s not easy for us to change our characteristic patterns of responding to anything puzzling or outside the routine.

My comment on the sort of service that feels like a duty date or a self-appointed mercy project is that we need to open our hearts on both sides. Maybe the server actually does genuinely enjoy the servee and look forward to their time together, and the latter is just a bit paranoid. Maybe the server is, actually, just trying to exemplify the principle, and not getting it quite right yet. Maybe the recipient is accurate in assessing certain “helpers” as a bit on the pious side if not downright obnoxious. We can still support all our sisters’ efforts to learn discipleship and possibly even offer a gentle and sincere suggestion. “We are trying to work on our trials with faith and optimism. Thanks for your concern; we appreciate your help so much! But we feel it’s a family matter.” Or “your love and prayers are always appreciated. We can never thank you enough. But we try to limit our discussions to our professional counselors, just so nothing goes further than necessary.”

I think many of us, as Jeannie suggested, need to be retrained. It would be wonderful to evolve a level or two, into saints who could look with kindness and compassion on another saint’s efforts to learn the charity principle, even if we are the object of an occasional botched project. It might also be beneficial to our growth, all around, for those of us who feel impressed by the spirit or possibly just want to improve in the area of offering more service, to whip out that glittering ruler. Make sure that, as a rule, it’s really golden. Think through our style of communicating with someone who is working through conspicuous challenges. Would we like it, ourselves, if people began to look at us as weirdos who can’t manage our own lives? Would we like it if our kids were stigmatized for external traits or circumstances?

Judith Martin, in her humorous guide, Miss Manners’ Guide to Excurciatingly Correct Behavior, Freshly Updated, says the only appropriate greeting for 6’8″ red-headed conjoined twins is this: “How do you do? How do you do?” In other words, the rest is none of our business and there is absolutely no proper way to comment on the height, coloring or unusual physical characteristics of a person with whom we interact socially. If the relationship changes and trust is earned and intimacy takes the place of social guidelines, this will evolve naturally, over time, and with complete mutuality. Until and unless this occurs, offer a ride, a hand with babysitting, a meal or two or whatever service you feel prompted to render. But don’t assume that means you are the newest and closest confidante. Does this make sense? We are hoping many of you can relate to this question and add to the learning experience for all of us.

{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Reader Comment August 12, 2007, 3:34 pm

    Catherine from Canada writes:

    Perhaps it would be appropriate to ask Brother C. Terry Warner for his comments on this issue. It is truly an area where “thinking out of the box” is beneficial. Recently I was struck by an experience offered in a church meeting. I am sorry to say that I cannot recall who gave the example so, with apologies, I will try to get the details right.

    I believe that the person speaking lived on an acreage with some distance between homes, and had experienced a loss in their family. A neighbor lady, who did not know them well, heard of the sad news and, anticipating that the family would be receiving many callers, arrived at their door with her kind condolences and a large urn of coffee. She was thanked profusely for her kindness, but gently told, “We don’t drink coffee here.” So she left. Now this is where it gets interesting.

    A couple of hours later this good hearted woman returned, this time with a large urn of, you guessed it ?tea. The people felt terrible to have to tell her that they did not drink tea, but again thanked her. Having been turned away twice, she was undaunted, and returned a few hours later with a large container of ?juice!

    This was an excellent example, if I understand the principle correctly, of “thinking outside the box” that Brother Warner teaches in his book, Bonds That Make Us Free. How many of us, having felt the thought/prompting/desire to serve would have gladly acted on it and brought over to a ward member their number one, prize winning, everybody-wants-the-recipe casserole.

    Having made this effort, one might feel pretty good about serving, imagining in their minds eye how the family might react (relieved/thrilled not have to deal with dinner) , obedient, and satisfied with having acted on the Lord’s prompting.

    Suppose then that at the door we were the one turned away, with “I’m terribly sorry, but this lovely casserole won’t meet our family’s needs.”

    How would we then respond? I would imagine most would be gracious at the door. We might have felt surprised that our kindness was turned away, perhaps thought that while they were gracious, we might have handled the situation differently. We might think that if it were we who received that casserole that we would take it and never say a word rather than make the person feel bad, or reject their efforts- even though the food would go to waste. Leaving the home how many would feel things like, “Gee, I put a lot of effort into that casserole. And it wasn’t just hamburger soup either! It had the finest of ingredients. You’d think they would appreciate that I was trying to help.” We might even go so far as to decide that they were ungrateful, recalling some incident or rumor that reinforced that belief. (“You know, she doesn’t seem to be very appreciative of what people do for her” or “Well, they certainly have no trouble taking help- so long as its on their terms.”)

    We might further emphasize to ourselves the time we took out of our busy schedule, the hassle it was to drive it over with the weather that day, the sacrifice it was to our budget, our family time (“Why, my own family won’t be eating this well tonight!”), etc. What a simple but amazing example this woman set! She was not judgmental, self- serving or insincere. She acted in a fashion that can only, in my mind at least, be described as having the pure love of Christ, genuinely wishing to serve in a way that would help these people. And she hung in there until she got it right. I wonder how many of us would go home and kneel down and ask Heavenly Father what it is we could do?

    Perhaps we might even repent, for presuming that we knew what was needed, and be humble enough to not take it personally. A dear friend in my ward, for whom I have great respect, seems to be the one who is always right there, actively helping, when someone is in need. She is my hero! I am in awe of her timing and knowledge of ward members while fully aware that she is in no way a gossip, she just seems to always be in touch with what is needed, and she does it without any sign of pious sacrifice or self-servitude. When I grow up I want to be like her. I had pondered “how does she do it?” Especially since I never seem to know anything! When I was younger, I used to excuse my lack of service with the thought that “Well, I guess I don’t hear much but at least I know I’m not a gossip.” Not good enough. With maturity, I have considered at length “Why is it? What is missing in my character, that I am not the kind of person whom others might confide their troubles to, or seek my help. I am willing. I am able.” I have felt sad at missed opportunities, and concerned at the weight that my friend shouldered in doing so much for so many. Amazed at how she manages to do so much, and still function, because true service is rarely without sacrifice. In expressing my respect for her actions (all of which were done quietly and without seeking credit or acknowledgment) she would just shrug it off as ‘no big deal’. That of course “anyone would do the same”. And they would. But, they didn’t. I didn’t.

    Finally she taught me. It was so simple that I cannot believe I didn’t see it. She does one thing, most every day. Just one. She kneels down at the beginning of that day, and she asks. “Father, how can I be of service today? What would you have me do?” And she does it.

    Perhaps our approach in service might be improved. I think that we would find it most difficult to offend, overstep, or fall short were we to ask, and listen – while on our knees before God with submissive hearts and the pure intent of serving Him who knows best what is needed. And doing this without regard for personal glory (albeit subconscious), inconvenience or sacrifice. A tall order! I know that I am not yet the person I describe herein. But every day that I choose to kneel and make that the morning to ask, “What wouldst Thou have me do?” I learn a little more and hopefully draw closer to that end.

  • Alison Moore Smith August 12, 2007, 3:35 pm

    Catherine, how helpful your comments are! What a great story. Service, for some of us, is such a tricky thing. Just as you, I have wonderful intentions, but seem to have little insight into how to go about following through. I am the stereotypical “let me know if you need anything” visiting teacher. I don’t say it flippantly, I truly mean it, but I usually can’t think of anything helpful to do.

    When I think of something I can actually do, more often than not I take over the proverbial urn of coffee. My tendency is not to get mad at the intended recipient of the unneeded/unwanted service. Generally I just end up feeling stupid and wishing I had never tried and, as you can probably guess, the experience makes me more hesitant to make the next attempt.

    Just as a small example, a few years ago a close friend of mine died of cancer. He left a young wife (who was also my dear friend) and three children. Because he had been so ill, a few close relatives were also staying at the house. When I asked his wife what I could do she gave me no clues. So one afternoon I bought burgers and fries and drinks for ten people and showed up just before lunchtime to feed the crowd ?only to find that all but the widow and the toddler had gone on a diversionary outing in another city. (And we all know how tasty cold, fast food tastes! Blech!) Although my friend was very kind and grateful, I felt silly and discouraged that my limited resources had ended up helping no one.

    While we do not have to sit idly by and allow people to harass us or be disrespectful to us in our times of trial (or, for that matter, times of ease), I believe that harshly judging those who are making some effort to do good to us serves no good purpose. Do we really know that the person is just making a show of piety? Do we really know that the person thinks they are superior? And if we erroneously judge someone who is, at least, trying to make a positive difference in our lives, where does that leave us? How much harm does that do to our souls?

    We should take great care that we are not being overly sensitive. Accepting service can be very difficult. We don’t want to burden others or be seen as “charity cases.” Perhaps a dose of humility will help us to be gracious recipients.

    And speaking of receiving service, the same friend I referred to above, came over to visit my husband and me after one of my miscarriages. At the time he was serving as our bishop. He came with a plate of peppermint brownies. Now I love anything chocolate but I can tell you that even if I were allergic to it I would still say that one of the most lovely acts of service ever done for me was when my very-uncomfortable-about-medical-issues bishop came over to console me during a situation most men don’t like to acknowledge, bearing a plate of homemade peppermint brownies, not from his wife, but that he made for me himself. What a true act of brotherly love!

    And, by the way, it was this same bishop whose wife was the recipient of the worthless burger meals!

  • klgreen1 August 12, 2007, 3:36 pm

    Great advice, Catherine. I plan to buy copies of Bonds That Make Us Free for my kids, too!

  • Reader Comment August 12, 2007, 3:37 pm

    Anabel Lee writes:

    I’m one of those who has suffered from serious, chronic health problems for a long time. One well-meaning sister kept approaching me in the foyer at church week after week, insisting that I try a “natural remedy” she considered miraculous. Being on an extremely limited diet, and scrupulous about taking only the medications prescribed for me by my doctors, I would gently remind her that I could not risk making myself more ill by taking an unknown, unproven product. She would smile, and try again – as if she were speaking to someone who wasn’t conversant in English and sometimes she would speak more slowly and loudly, assuming that my other physical problems had resulted in a loss of hearing. I came to dread her approach, and actually began avoiding her.

    Finally one Sunday she said she was only going to offer her “miracle” pills to me one more time. When I once again explained that I had received priesthood blessings, and was on an aggressive course of medical treatment, she concluded with “Well, if that’s the way you feel, I can’t do anything for you! But when you decide to really get healed, you know where to find me!” I’m sure this zealous sister (probably) had my best interests at heart, and had no idea how her missionary-like approach effected me, but I must confess that I still avoid her.

  • Jeannie Vincent August 12, 2007, 3:38 pm

    It seems to be very difficult for some people to take “no” for an answer. This woman did seem to have your best interest at heart but had trouble accepting your decision to go the conventional way. I wonder if it would be worth it (so you don’t have to avoid her in Church), to actually seek her out and thank her for her concern. Validate the fact that you know she cares about you and make it clear that you didn’t mean to hurt her feelings by turning her generous offer down. Without the least bit of insincerity, you could say that should you change your mind about your chosen method of treatment, you will call her. This leaves the door open and would make her feel as if you had considered her idea. At very least, you wouldn’t have those awkward moments in the hall where you both have to divert your eyes and pretend you don’t know one another.

  • Reader Comment August 12, 2007, 3:39 pm

    Cari from Springfield, Virginia, writes:

    Loved the question and commentary. I have never been on the receiving end of such service; however, I suspect that my own well-meaning comments have on occasion crossed the line into preachiness or bossiness, or worse.

    At the same time, there are cases in which members (often on the marginal side) are truly living in chaos, both physical and emotional. These people cannot properly dispose of garbage, clean their homes, or consistently discipline their children. It is sometimes difficult for those of us who are called upon to assist, over and over again, to refrain from offering some well-meant and much-needed advice. The same service, going for years on end, to the same people, simply gets onerous. It’s hard to resist saying, “Here, your trash goes out on Tuesday. Put this reminder on your door, and every Monday night, go through the house with these trash bags and collect everything. It’ll only take ten minutes!”

    This could be taken as an insult, or as a good piece of simple advice. Charity is a state of mind as well as an action. Either way, it behooves us all to consider the service given from the point of view of the recipient, and not from our own as do-gooders. Thanks for a thought-provoking column!

  • Jeannie Vincent August 12, 2007, 3:40 pm

    I loved the last line of your comment about seeing service from the eye of the recipient. However, in your defense and the defense of sisters who perform what appears to be redundant and non-effective service, it

    gets doggone hard to do the same things, week after week. It becomes particularly difficult when there appears to be no glimmer of improvement or wish to change. We ask ourselves how in the world people can live in such conditions. My thought is that they just plain do not see it (it’s too close) or they are too depressed to care.

    Whatever the reason, it is frustrating. I’m sure you’re not the first who has offered suggestions for improvement, especially when the living conditions become hazardous to health. What you said about a charitable state of mind is really applicable. Maybe the right person in the right state of mind could gently school and help. It’s a very fine line…one left to the whisperings of the Holy Ghost.

    Thanks for your insightful comments, Cari.

  • Reader Comment August 12, 2007, 3:41 pm

    Ginger from California, writes:

    I loved the story of the coffee urn! Years ago I was returning home from my brother’s funeral nearly at wits end because they had given my return seat away and I had to make other arrangements. The offending airline sent me over to another airline, I asked the agent if he had a seat on the last plane out and immediately burst into tears. He patted my hand and said “Honey, if we don’t you can have mine.”

    Arriving in Redding I had to wait sometime for another flight out to get home. In the waiting room I couldn’t help noticing a woman just sobbing and really didn’t know what to do. Everyone acted like she was invisible. Finally I gathered all my courage and asked her if I could get her a cup of coffee or something. She lashed out at me with a fury I had never experienced and told me, in a very loud voice, to leave her alone she didn’t need anything. I shrunk back to my chair and said to myself “Boy, Ginger, you and your big mouth”.

    A short time passed and she apologized to me and told me her brother had just died and her favorite brother-in-law was in the hospital dying. She asked me to please get her some coffee. I did and then I just listened to her for a long time. I have always been glad I made that effort for a stranger and it made the next time a little easier. One of the greatest lessons we can learn in life is not to take these things personal just as the lady with the coffee, tea and juice.

  • Jeannie Vincent August 12, 2007, 3:42 pm

    Sometimes, even doing what appears to be the “wrong” thing is better than doing nothing at all. Obviously, this poor lady was totally overwrought and just needed a few minutes to re-group. It was really good that you did not respond in kind. That would have shut the door forever and robbed you both of a great blessing. Brava ?hope we can all take a lesson from your courage.

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