The Path and The Tao of Public Service


“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.…”  President John F. Kennedy, 1961

A new time and opportunity are on the horizon.  It is a time when those who have the best interests of humanity at heart, can forge a new form of life that can lead to a time, as one wise individual put it, when “the present state of fear, and of intense competitive struggle for existence, will be superceded by a real measure of stability and security.”

In order to usher in such a time, we must all begin to walk our own path, do our life purpose, and fulfill our own mission to the best of our ability.  However, it all begins with service.  Service opens up the possibility of purpose. Without service to others, one’s true purpose cannot be found.

Public Service

Today many refer to one’s life purpose or destiny as “the Path.”  In certain philosophies of the East “the Path” is also known as “the Way.”  “The Tao” means, “the Way.”  So this is what we mean when we use the phrase, “The Tao of Public Service.”

When we use the term “Public Service” we are not using it in the old familiar way.  In other words when we say “public” we are not referring to government service, elected office or even volunteer “community service.” And we are not relegating regular work to the realm of the “private.”  When we use the term “Public Service” what we mean is work done in the world for the sake of others and by this we mean “any work.”

What this means, in practical terms, is that any task can be done in one-way or the other. Any job, any work, any task can be done solely for one’s own benefit or for the sake of others: whether it is President of the United States or garbage collector.  In addition, when we refer to a path of public service it should be clear that we are not talking about one path but many paths.  We are talking about the path or work that each person may engage in when they live their every day life.

The Mission Concept

Abraham Maslow introduced to us the concept of a health-based psychology and described the healthy person as “self-actualizing.”  He presents this same idea of public service under the concept of a “life mission.

Maslow found that the healthy individual often conceived of their life purpose in the sense of what he called a “mission.”  In his book “Motivation and Personality” he said:

Our subjects are in general strongly focused on problems outside themselves.  In current terminology they are problem-centered rather than ego-centered.  They generally are not problems for themselves and are not generally much concerned about themselves, e.g., as contrasted with the ordinary introspectiveness that one finds in insecure people.  These individuals customarily have some mission in life, some task to fulfill, some problem outside themselves, which enlists much of their energies.

This is not necessarily a task that they would prefer or choose for themselves; it may be a task that they feel is their responsibility, duty or obligation.  This is why we use the phrase “a task that they must do” rather than the phrase “a task that they want to do.”  In general these tasks are non-personal or unselfish, concerned rather with the good of mankind in general, or of a nation in general, or of a few individual’s in the subject’s family. 

With a few exceptions we can say that our subjects are ordinarily concerned with basic issues and eternal questions of the type that we have learned to call philosophical or ethical.…[i]

Maslow published these words in 1954. The sense of mission and duty is clear. Yet, what I find the most fascinating is that these ideas, in the history of thought, are not new.

The origins of these ideas are found in ancient Indian philosophy and then re-energized in the words and theories of the philosopher Count Hermann Keyserling.  Keyserling revived the ancient Indian concept of “Dharma.”  For him, dharma is also life purpose or the Way.

In his book “Creative Understanding” writing in 1920 he said:

“In a word Dharma is the conceptual expression of the practical understanding that for everyone there is only one way leading to perfection.  The meaning of the doctrine of Dharma is this:  that for the understanding of every abstract idea, for the realization of every program, for the satisfaction of every possible ambition, a corresponding inner state is needed.  One must be inwardly prepared for what one undertakes, whatever it may be; ultimately one is only justified in aspiring to an ideal conforming to one’s personal inner reality…[ii]

The idea that one must be “inwardly prepared for what one undertakes” is an identification of the basis for the conception of inner purpose or “mission.”  As a philosophical concept Keyserling introduces it as a principle of living.  However, as a psychological concept Maslow introduces it as a psychological imperative:  it is not what I want to do but what I must do.  Another way of saying the same thing is that it represents one’s purpose in life.  It may not actually be what you want or wish to do.  However, it may be what you must do because it is THE THING that you are “inwardly” or “psychologically” prepared to do.  It is the thing that leads not only to correct growth and psychological health, like planting a seed in the correct ground, but it also is the correct manner in which one is intended to relate to the surrounding world. “

The Future

President John F. Kennedy’s words are a clarion call for a new kind of citizenship.  The ideas discussed above reveal that we have now come to a time when we must put the public/private distinction behind us, once and for all.  The ideas of “the private citizen” and “the public servant” are obsolete and must be brought to an end.  For, to have a better world, we must all strive to be of public benefit to each other.  We must all strive to be public servants.

For the individual this means that he or she must strive for perfection.  It is not the all-encompassing perfection of the omnipotent or the omniscient, but it is the limited perfection of the task at hand.  One has to try and do one’s dharma.  One has to strive for the immediate and attainable ideal.  One has to try and be the best worker, teacher, doctor, lawyer, soldier, judge, professor, president, governor, mayor, CEO, husband, wife, son, daughter, father and mother one can become.  A mayor does not have to perfect being a president.  The mayor has to perfect being a mayor.  The daughter does not have to perfect being a son.  The daughter only must strive to be the best daughter possible.

In so doing, we live life for others and also work towards our own inner growth: growing our own insight and intuition.  And in this way, we build a better world.

[i] Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality   Harper and Row, Publishers (1954) p. 211-212.

[ii] Hermann Keyserling, Creative Understanding Harper and Row, Publishers (1920) p.197.


About ezlight

Eric Z. Lucas is an alumnus of Stanford University, the University of Washington (BA:1981) and Harvard Law School, J.D. 1986. He has been a public servant most of his career life: a prosecuting attorney, a city attorney and a trial judge. Married to his wife Beth since 1974, they have four children. He is the author of The Island Horse (2005) and The Tao of Public Service published by Balboa Press (2013). Both books are available from Self Discovery Publications, Barnes and Noble, and The Tao of Public Service is also available from Balboa Press.
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