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In a way this is understandable, because it conflicts with our ideal of personal freedom – the ability to say proudly along with the poet, "I am the master of my destiny / I am the captain of my soul." We resent any system or belief that threatens to constrain us, and we admire those who cast aside tradition and break conventions in pursuit of their individual passions and dreams. There's something exhilarating to many of us about a heroine whose inner blaze of self-will cannot be quelled by duty, or guilt, or even love – or so it would seem judging by some of the popular books I've read in the past year or so.
Nevertheless I'd like to suggest, with all respect to the talented authors of those books, that this view is wrong.
"What?!" you may exclaim. "Are you saying we should all just make ourselves slaves to other people? That we should just spend our lives doing what we're told, regardless of how we feel about it? You really think there's something noble in letting our spirits be crushed and our dreams trampled so other people can prosper at our expense?"
The answer is no, certainly not. I am not recommending that people make themselves slaves; I am definitely not suggesting they should turn themselves into doormats. I do believe, however, that no human being on this earth can ever be truly happy or fulfilled, or reach their highest potential – let alone enter into any meaningful relationships with others – unless they are willing to be a servant, and that sometimes servanthood means putting ourselves aside.
"Uh-huh," you say, with pardonable skepticism. "So what's the difference between a servant, a slave, and a doormat?" To which I would reply:
A slave is someone forced into service against their will, whose only option is to serve or die. They may be a strong, resolute, capable individual in their own right, but they have not chosen the life or the work that has been given to them. They may do well at their tasks, but only from necessity, and their greatest desire will always be for freedom.
A doormat, on the other hand, is someone who has made themselves a slave. Because they are weak, guilty, frightened, or desperate to please, they allow others to rule over them and take advantage of them. They are constantly at the mercy of other people's whims, forced to carry out all kinds of tasks and errands which bring them little or no personal fulfillment or pleasure, but still they cannot bring themselves to say no.
By contrast, a true servant is motivated not by external pressures or inward fears, but by personal conviction. To be a servant is to believe wholeheartedly in the work that you are doing – not only that it is a good and necessary thing, but that you personally are equipped and prepared to do it. You are willingly and consciously taking the talents, skills, and abilities that you possess, and putting them to use in a way that benefits others.
Let me use a Biblical example (because I'm obnoxious like that). When Jesus's disciples started quarrelling about which of them was the greatest, Jesus told them, "If anyone wants to be great among you, let him be the servant of all." And later, to reinforce the point, He got up quietly from the table where they were eating, took a basin and a towel, and knelt down to wash their filthy, road-callused feet.
If Jesus had done this because the owner of the house had ordered it, He would have been a slave; if He had done it because he was trying to ingratiate himself to the disciples, He would have been a doormat. But in reality He did this not because anyone expected it of Him – in fact the disciples were horrified, and Peter even begged him not to do it – but to teach them that true greatness is found in showing unselfish compassion toward others, not in asserting our own rights and privileges at their expense. He was teaching His disciples a lesson and setting them an example; and so, even though He acted as their servant, He was really proving Himself once again to be their Master.
True servanthood demands commitment, conviction, and courage; it requires confidence in who you are and what you are doing. If you are the sort of person who measures yourself by what other people think of you and need constant affirmation of your own worth to be secure, then you are poorly equipped to be a servant. Because the moment the people you are serving behave indifferently or negatively toward you, you will either turn into a doormat (which will do both them and yourself more harm than good) or you will give up in despair.
But if your motivation for being a servant lies outside of yourself – as it did for the disciples, who learned to follow the example of Christ and draw their strength from Him – then you can do amazing things in even the most challenging and even hostile circumstances, and still not lose hope. Ultimately, the true servant is sustained not by rewards and accolades, or even by obvious proof of success – instead, they are motivated by love.
Deep down we all know the truth of this, I think. We talk about people like Mother Teresa with reverence – people who have suffered and made great personal sacrifices in order to benefit others. And when we hear of firefighters, policemen and others who have risked or even given up their lives to save people in need, we don't scoff at their stupidity but instead hail them as heroes. Why should that be, if servanthood is inherently demeaning, and to realize your own personal ambitions is the highest end in life?
The truth is – however much we may resent it – we were all made to serve something, or someone, outside of ourselves. Every kind of meaningful relationship in this world demands a certain amount of self-sacrifice; every successful partnership requires a certain amount of compromise. A person who insists on asserting their own interests in every situation will soon find him or herself alone.
I'm all in favor of delivering people from slavery, and I don't think there's anything good about being a doormat. To be forced into servitude is a horrible thing, and it can be just as terrible to be enslaved by the fear of others. There's also a tragedy in selflessly but ignorantly giving your life to the service of the wrong master, as Kazuo Ishiguro's brilliant novel The Remains of the Day illustrates.
But willing, principled, intelligent servanthood, given out of love and as a free choice, is a very different and much more positive thing. And personally, I would like to see more stories that acknowledge and even celebrate this kind of servanthood, and fewer that seem to disparage it.