Since graduating from law school I have been a public servant for most of my career life: a prosecuting attorney, a city attorney and a trial judge. I am a deep believer in public service. In my private life I devote most of my non-work hours to community service. But at this point in my life, sadly, I have come to the conclusion that all of these efforts, in a fundamental sense, have failed. If you, like me, desire to help change the world for the better, I suspect that we have to conceive of these efforts in a whole new way. There needs to be a new definition of public service.
Our Brave New World: The Fact of Interrelatedness
The Eyjafjallajokull volcano in southern Iceland erupted twice in less than a month in the spring of 2010. The ash flowed all over Europe. During this episode an estimated 28,000 flights a day were grounded.[i] My wife’s boss planned to visit her daughter in Paris but the flight was cancelled due to volcanic ash. She rebooked the flight twice but could not travel to Paris until May 15th, over thirty days later. We live in Everett, Washington.
We are interconnected, intertwined, in so many different ways. The economy in Greece flutters and the U.S. stock market takes a dive. The H1N1 virus starts in Mexico and in few days spreads around the world. A woman protesting elections in Iran is shot on the street and we see it live seconds later. A drill platform explodes in the Gulf of Mexico and oil spreads through the pristine ocean waters threatening the entire world ecosystem.
More and more I am left with the feeling that my life is both less important and more important than it has ever been before. This is so because any decision I make in my job, in our world of today, has the potential to affect everyone else in the world. Conversely, my decisions are less important – perhaps even ineffectual – because the effect for good or ill is even more dependent on the quality of the work someone else does.
Let me give you one example. A few years ago I was assigned a “dependency case, a termination action,” for trial. The parents had their child taken from them because they were drug addicts and suffered from other psychological infirmities. The trial was heart-wrenching. Both parents knew they were unfit but refused to give up their parental rights. They had no faith that the “system” could do more for their son than they could. The father was black, the mother was white. Their mixed race son, who was eight years old, was suffering from leukemia. Their fear was just this: once this child is taken from us who will adopt him?
Yet I had to do my job. I terminated their parental rights. However, I retained jurisdiction of the case to try and ensure his adoption. But the odds were not good. Cyle was classified as “violent” in his group home. He was an unlikely candidate for adoption. And about six months after my termination decision his leukemia came out of remission, requiring hospitalization and a bone marrow transplant. The doctors refused to deal with the Department or me (the judge), as surrogate parents. They insisted on a legal parent. I was desperate. I even talked to my wife about adopting him.
Enter Sven and Yvonne, foster parents. Cyle had to have 24/7 care in the hospital (often in the psychiatric ward) and a parent present. So Sven quit his job and moved into the hospital. There was no requirement that he do this. The couple also agreed to adopt Cyle despite his violence and life threatening condition. So, approximately 28 days from the date I received the demand from the hospital Cyle was adopted. The transplant sent Cyle’s cancer back into remission.
Last fall, almost two years later, Cyle died. His memorial service was a celebration. This little boy who had been officially classified as “violent” received testimonial after testimonial about his transformation. His teacher, principal and classmates all spoke. Cyle was considered a model student who inspired his entire school.
At one point he knew he was dying and he was prepared to die. He occupied his time preparing others for his death. He left notes hidden around his home: making jokes, making observations about life, reminding his family members to do things, and even asking his mother to apologize to the doctors for his violent behavior all those eighteen months ago. The wonderful little boy that he was came shining through.
Yvonne spoke about how Cyle had been such a good son and how he changed their lives. But I was left with the transformation that Sven and Yvonne had achieved in Cyle’s life. They put Cyle first. He died at peace, knowing he had true parents and that he was a loved member of a real family.
I say it was a transformation. Yet, it was also something more. It was true service. They put Cyle first and they saved him. He received what he needed. I was left with a deep feeling of gratitude for these young parents. I am grateful because but for them my actions would have been futile.
The Need to Unify Power and Purpose
Sven and Yvonne went far beyond what was required of them as foster parents. I have seen situations where the foster parents are merely in it for the money. This was my great fear. But my fears did not come to pass. Instead they responsibly united their systemic power with their true purpose.
When a fireman runs into a burning building to rescue others; when a soldier leaps on a live grenade thrown in attack; we know that something special has taken place. Today, I am going to give that extra-special something a name. Let us call it True Service.
When I use the term True Service, in this new way, I am not referring to government service, elected office or even volunteer “community service.” And I am not relegating regular work or our regular lives to the realm of the “private:” Because in a certain real sense our regular work and our regular lives are not merely or simply “private.”
When I use the term True Service what I mean is dedicated work done in the world which includes a consideration of its effect on others. It is not charity. Rather, this new concept rests on a redefinition of work itself – in the redefinition of what a job means. It recognizes that every type of work or job by definition is only properly done when it includes consideration for the needs of those affected by the result.
In practical terms, this means that any task can be done in one-way or the other. Any job, any work, any task, can be done by using the power of that job solely for one’s own benefit or by looking out for the benefit that job’s real purpose has for others: whether it is President of the United States or garbage collector. True service is achieved when any job unites power and purpose in benefit to the public.
For example: Seeking power through profit solely for themselves, the executives at mega-corporation AIG took on too much risk and their company went bankrupt. This threatened the entire world economy because AIG was “too big to fail.” I submit that they were not really doing their jobs in this new sense because they disregarded the impact of the risk they undertook on the rest of the economy. They sought only power and ignored purpose. When the executives at BP and their contractors ignored the safety concerns of their own work crew and caused the Gulf Oil Spill, they too sought only power and ignored purpose.
Today so many people seek security by trying to possess the power of a job or task and then keep the result solely for themselves. They correctly see this power as leading to benefits for themselves that they need and want. But what I have tried to show is that every task or job also involves a purpose. And if you act only for power it often fails to meet the purpose and as such is a detriment to us all: like a fireman who stands by and allows a house to burn to the ground because the owners failed to pay a $75 dollar fee. Power benefits the individual but purpose benefits everyone.
Every action properly done is an act of public service no matter how high or how lowly the actor. Every action is significant and every single person is critically important. For even the vagrant on the street has the power to ruin your day or end your life.
I submit that our dizzying maze of interconnected social problems can only be properly met and resolved when a critical mass of individuals begins to act according to this new understanding. I suspect that only in this way can we build a better life.
[i] European flights jump as volcanic ash clears and Germany, France reopen airspace, by Edward Cody and Karla Adam, Washington Post, April 22, 2010.