Serve Others, But Be Your Only Source of Self-Worth

In a comedy series my wife and I enjoy, there was a restaurant scene that really jumped out at me. What struck me was not the scene’s use of the typical waiter cliches, but how often these devices had been used by entertainment in different forms – restaurants, retail shops, call centers or any service-oriented domain – and how much I’d taken their abundance for granted without even really thinking about their meaning. The scene went like this:

  • A father and daughter are sitting in a restaurant ready to discuss an important family matter (already things are not looking good).
  • A server interrupts them to take their order and perform their basic protocol of feeding people.
  • The server asks them if they had been to the restaurant before.
  • To the daughter’s chagrin, the father says, “no.”
  • The server goes into what is for them, an overly long and tedious introduction to the restaurant’s sensibilities and all of its exciting offerings (how annoying, these poor people have some pressing matters to resolve!). 
  • To boot, the server was well-spoken and professional (how dare he!?)
  • After the server leaves, the daughter lashes her father: “Don’t you know? Never tell a waiter you haven’t been to a restaurant before! And, also, why’d you even say ‘no’ when you’ve been here so many times?”
  • The father, a sweet, placid man, returns with, “Let the man have his moment in the sun.”

This take on things was a bit more down-to-earth than the depictions of waiters and service people I’d seen parodied in sketch comedy since the 1990s. But still our server here is viewed as otherwise pathetic and invisible until his compassionate guests grant him the gift of announcing the specials and squeaking out a little validation from the situation. In entertainment, service professionals are often presented as agents of absurdity, obfuscation, hostility and egomania. I’ve seen servers that make any actual ordering and eating impossible by burying their guests in an endless tangle of options-within-options. There were servers physically restraining guests and forcing them to endure nightmarishly long and obscure descriptions of the daily specials. Call center employees and floor sales associates are displayed as equally menacing.

Essentially, there has developed this collective understanding of service professionals as this annoyance that must be endured. This is a comedic reflection of people’s real-life relationship to service, where one of our favorite pastimes is complaining about some recent highly-frustrating service experience they had. What’s happening here? Do we live in a world heaving with oppressive servers that want nothing more than to confine you to listen as they endlessly curate a menu? Is it a world filled with servers so hellbent on hogging the stage that they would consider it a professional failure if you ever got a chance to even order? Sure in fine dining, where the food is often much more complex, I have found it to be a constant challenge to keep my information transfer concise. But most restaurants you go to, you’d be lucky to have a server take a moment to tell you if a dish is hot or cold.

So where did this archetype come from? Well, the world that is being reflected in entertainment is not that of the servers, but of the people being served. Sure people have developed a distaste for service from their collection of experiences with service departments that are uncaring and unhelpful to almost absurd heights. This is why I hope to use mindfulness to help reform these departments. But when you also see frustration aimed at people that actually want to serve, it’s clear that the alienation people feel from the people serving them is also a product of an individualistic culture. One where we want to be left alone in our own universe, surrounded by anonymous working people performing some kind of function, with no interest in engaging or otherwise respecting the person serving us.

Okay, so why am I talking about restaurants right now? Restaurants don’t really exist right now. But the need for service exists more than ever. Someone serving you in a restaurant wholeheartedly is attempting to make the same exchange as the people bringing free sandwiches to the hungry and exhausted medical heroes that are working overtime at our hospitals (though I will otherwise compare the two in terms of the charity, heroics, and even risk involved – I’m just saying it’s driven by the same motive). And crises like these allow us to see the importance of the service motive. We get a crisper understanding of the value of the drive to help – to recognize needs of others and to act. This imperative is woven into our DNA. It’s always there. It doesn’t always take the form people want it to when they’re trying to catch up on emails on their phone and shrug off the nervous and overly polite server who maybe just wants to make their day a little brighter.

What’s the call to action here? That our culture needs to change? Absolutely not. Firstly, our culture can be whatever it wants to be and has no obligation to form itself to whatever romantic model of some service-oriented society that sensibilities like mine may long for. And, secondly, no matter how much this crisis changes things, any sustained evolution of sensibilities is gradual and takes lifetimes. We need to think about the kind of people we have the power to be right now, within this present climate. 

We need to work on ourselves to the point where this reality doesn’t hurt us. And then we can really serve. Because you can’t serve unless you understand the value of your role – and yourself as a gatekeeper of something more powerful than you may realize. No matter what your service role is – maybe you’re on the other end of a call center line getting abused all day, maybe your processing bar code after bar code in a check out lane, or maybe you’re a nurse practitioner finally getting the appreciation you deserve – you have power. Usually, the people you serve won’t tell you that, your peers won’t tell you that, your employers won’t tell you that, and the cultural narratives around service certainly won’t tell you that. The position isn’t fully respected by most Western human beings. 

This has to be a value that you witness unfolding. Your self-worth and dignity needs to be established from the inside out. And it needs to be wrought into the hardness of a samurai sword. Because every day of every service role is filled with reasons not to value ourselves. The very nature of the role is an invitation to feel lowly and under-appreciated. To feel like an annoyance. But if someone doesn’t see the value of another person approaching them with a full heart, eager and available to give them what they need to make their day a little better, let them experience that loss. It doesn’t have to even touch what you gain from every single exchange.