The video below summarizes a thread in the classic movie The Princess Bride: the phrase “As you wish” as code for “I love you.” Watch the video to orient yourself, but if you haven’t seen The Princess Bride, your time is probably better spent doing that front-to-back. This article will be here when you’re done.
Part of the basic goodness of human nature is our ability, and our yearning, to place ourselves into service.
To me, the end of The Princess Bride is one of the most touching moments in film. When I try to pin down precisely why, what emerges is a discussion of service.
Part of the basic goodness of human nature is our ability, and our yearning, to place ourselves into service. Service in this case isn’t a chore, but is a delighful act of putting love into practice.
In fact, humans love and even need service. As anyone in a well-paid but meaningless job—that is, a job that is not serving the good of the world—will tell you, the human spirit actually begins to starve without some level of service.
The Best Lives are Bound Up in Service
As a result, service crops up often in the writings and lives of great souls. One example is Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote:
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”
More broadly, almost all of the most celebrated lives in history have been in steady service to something: to country (Washington or Gandhi); to truth (Newton or Einstein); to art (Beethoven or Shakespeare); or to love, as in the lives of countless less famous people who give totally and selflessly to friends and family throughout their lives.
What is Service?
Service is a particular type of gift: rather than giving something you possess, you give yourself, totally.
Service is a particular type of gift. In service, rather than giving something you possess, you give yourself, totally. To me, this type of giving is so moving because it highlights the majesty of the giver—and the power of the gift itself, which is also the giver.
As a good image for this, you could imagine a dragon bending down to allow you to ride it, simply to bring you joy. That a being of such power would wish nothing more than to serve you does not diminish its power, but magnifies it. A dragon would be a fascinating creature even if it had a crocodile’s flat self-interest; but to learn that it was in fact filled with a boundless, patient love would be almost too much to contemplate. It has so much to give—and it wants nothing more than to give.
Replacing “dragon” with “human,” this is precisely the message at the end of The Princess Bride, and it’s a message that I find overwhelming every time I encounter it.
Service and Basic Goodness
Service is a direct window into basic goodness, which is the inherent power, dignity, and worthiness of humanity itself. Just as the dragon we described is clearly a “good dragon,” the pulse of service that shines throughout human life, across time and place, is a window onto our underlying goodness.
If you feel in yourself the desire to help the world, or a specific desire to help a loved one overcome an illness or achieve a goal, then you are directly feeling your own goodness. And if you can reflect on and feel gratitude for the service of others on your behalf—the efforts that your parents exerted to give you a good life, or the long hours your teachers put in to help you learn, or the humble and patient support of a best friend—then you are reflecting both on your basic goodness and on that of others in your life.
If we look closely, we can also find moments of service woven through our chaotic world. Whatever your politics, I doubt you can fail to appreciate the power of President Obama bending so that an incredulous black boy can touch his hair and see that it is indeed curly:
The humility of service is not an admission of weakness, but a direct expression of the raw power of human goodness.
In these moments, we can see that the humility of service is not an admission of weakness, but a direct expression of the raw power of human goodness.
Of course, there are also countless instances of non-service, and even some people who appear to live wholly selfish lives. Discussing why this lack of service does not in fact prove “basic badness” is long, and unsuited to an experiential article like this. Look for articles in the category “Conceptual” for a more philosophical look at basic goodness.
For now, though, I hope that you find reflecting on the steady pulse of human service to be a powerful and warming activity. It’s meant a lot to me through the years.
An Ending Story: Service and the Sixteenth Karmapa
To close, I thought I’d relate one of the most powerful stories of service I’ve ever heard. It was told to me in 2009 by Paul, a senior meditation practitioner who, when he was much younger, had served as security for one of the Sixteenth Karmapa’s visits to the US.
Paul was standing in a hallway late at night when the Karmapa came out of his bedroom. The Karmapa spoke very limited English, and so Paul, not knowing what to do, raised his palms in a gesture of “Can I do anything?”
The Karmapa smiled and raised his palms in the same gesture.
When Paul told me this story, he could barely finish it. Forty years later, it was one of the most powerful memories of his life.
This is the Sixteenth Karmapa:
Thank you for reading!