To ‘live’ in the 21st century: How service may not lead us to the meaning that we seek

What does service mean to you?

I’m sure the answer would be quite personal and insightful into who you are and how you think.

To do? To check? To fix? Maintain?

Silver? Secret? Car? Or Church?

Lend a hand? Bob-a-job?

Honour? Duty? Or obey?

We see the language of service a lot in civil society and this is where I’ll be focussing on within this post.

Changing Times

This shift contains the potential for entirely new ways of organising and cooperating as a society and civilisation.

Many people are recognising elements of this change and refer to it with slightly different language.

Transactional to relational.

Mechanistic to ecosystems.

Complicated to complex.

There is an irony contained within all of these in that there is much similarity in how indigenous and ancient cultures viewed the world. Not as a world of singular elements but as a cohesive whole.

Their world view and ancestorial common sense may have high value for us in a world of relationships.

A world of relationships being one that hyper-connectivity is today pressurising us to make sense of.

Ecosystems are what I’ll stick with as I attempt to explain my thoughts.

A garden is an example of an ecosystem.

I would argue that not one part of that garden is in service to any other part. That’s not how nature works.

Secondly, it has a life of its own which can only be understood in totality (the ecosystem or as abstract form).

Thirdly, it is life giving and sustaining. As well as being alive and consisting of life, it is also constantly giving birth to new life.

Now the reason I’m saying these things is because there is a way to look at that same garden and to say that everything within it is ‘of service’ to everything else.

The bee is in the service of the pollinating plants and so on and so forth.

But isn’t this just us anthropomorphising through our commonly accepted modern humanistic view of how our ‘constructed’ and ‘entirely artificial’ civilisation (institutions and organisations) function?

We are taking our understanding of how human society is ‘perceived by us’ to operate and then applying it to the natural world.

It’s ridiculous.

Let’s face it. The bee is not in service to the plant. That’s just silly.

It’s not like there’s an SLA somewhere.

I think there comes a point as we look at and understand ecosystems or nature that we need to make a real effort to change how we think, and make use of language, ideas and metaphors which are more suitable for the conditions we’re trying to work with.

It might make more sense to say that everything within a garden makes a contribution? Although this is perhaps explanatory language, and explanations more often than not run short of reality.

It is as only as we come into relation with nature or ecosystems through study or experience that I feel we begin to reach different and more intimate levels of understanding about how things really work.

We become able to ask big questions from a fresh starting point.

What is it? What is it for? What is it doing? Why are we here?

These questions all reveal knowledge and insights which we wouldn’t have realised before.

Revelations about us and about the world. Yes.

But it is also that deep within these searching questions we find ourselves approaching an ancient, ever flowing and revitalising wellspring.

Somewhere in its waters, between our questions and responses — in our relationship to it — exists our meaning, purpose and fulfilment.

Meaning, purpose and fulfilment

The Garden is a metaphor through which the world appears differently.

It opens up our boundaries and moves us into relation with everything else.

It is for us to be in relation to and in relation with each other.

To change our practices and perspectives.

I am not going to question the use of ‘service’ terminology within civil society. I think it’s right and a fitting description of much of the work which civil society performs.

The ‘culture of service’ concept and language is well established within the sector and within cultural and public understanding and there is nothing wrong with it.

But there is also this different language and understanding and way of thinking that might help us to become different kinds of organisations in a different kind of society.

This cultural and social transition and transformation which we may be beginning to undergo requires that we ask the big questions of ourselves, our organisations, our understanding of the world and of our purpose in it.

To see us as part of nature and enquire what this means.

Freedom is thus not a state of being, but a practice — a way of being in relation to oneself, to others and to the world.

Foucault’s Theory of Freedom, summarised on Wikipedia

If we are to see, understand and develop the a garden in its entirety and as an interrelated aspect of it then we must approach and tap that life-giving spring for fresh answers concerning our meaning, purpose and fulfilment.

To do this as individuals, organisations and wider ecosystemic agents for in the garden we are all these things at once.

How civil society answers these questions and adapts and changes. Which course it decides to take and which language it uses to define and describe it’s many varied and vital roles in a hyper-connected society matters.

It matters for the sector and it matters to the society to which we all belong.

Shape the language and the thought and the ethos of what kind of society we want to belong to and you begin to shape and form the entire telos of the society within which we all exist.

This ‘telos’ is that ‘life-giving water’ from which we are able to repeatedly return to and draw upon.

It is a wellspring that is able to give birth to and nurture the kinds of businesses, the kinds of politics, the kind of economy and the kind of freedoms and meaning, and purpose and fulfilment which we can all contribute to, enjoy and create together.

The hyper-connected society I talk of is here now and connected enough but it is without a story to guide or define it.

It is devoid of meaning or purpose. Without a telos it remains in service to a hollow promise and a world which no longer rings true.

The world needs civil society to lead and support the transition to something new and it has a duty and responsibility to do so.

It starts with deep questioning and listening.

To drink of those waters and find yourself immersed.

To rediscover your meaning and purpose.

In the garden what are you called to be?

It starts in the heart with meaning, purpose and fulfilment.

It grows within society through language, culture and behaviour.

It gives its life to everything around it.

A place where everything and everyone can belong.

There is a garden which can overgrow the system.

Look deep inside and discover,

within you is the seed.

So Thoreau tells us: ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately’. I found something of this spirit in some youths on a street corner in a village in the heart of the Mato Grosso. I had come from the bustling city of Sao Paulo to this far-away village. ‘What do you do here?’ I asked the youths. ‘Why we live here’ came their reply. And their tone of voice really meant live.

Meaning brings motivation. Motivation leads to action. Action leads to transformation. Transformation is possible because human life can rise above present circumstance.

A Purpose For Everything, L. Charles Birch

Founder of Socially Enterprising / Commoner / Mostly Unemployed.