Dylan sang it and wrote it and in his way he tries to live it. His song “You’re Gonna Have to Serve Somebody” probably has roots that go as far back as the Bible.
You have to serve somebody, even if all you think you’re serving are your own appetites and needs. Even if you’re a bank robber, you’re serving somebody. If you’re the bank-robber character Ben Affleck plays in Town, you end up serving somebody other than yourself if you’re lucky.
And why not?
What at first may seem like a command, a stricture you have to follow, like taking bitter medicine, “You’ve got to serve somebody” actually offers insightful advice. It’s a brilliant piece of coaching that if implemented in the right spirit can open up the world and make you feel more alive, connected, present, valuable, successful, and yes, even happy.
We are connection-seeking beings, almost every one of us. Connections, solid, deep, and caring, have been shown to help a man or woman lead a longer and happier life.
So why not serve and be connected? Well, you might say, I do that already. I take care of my family. I love them. I guess I serve them and I’m grateful for it.
What about in your job?
What about in your parenting?
What about in your friendships?
What about in all your relationships?
What about when you’re at the checkout counter at Trader Joe’s?
Why not an attitude of service wherever you go, whomever you’re with?
Of course, we have to be careful of being do-gooders. As Thoreau pointed out, do-gooders, those who consciously go out to do good, are often a pain in the butt. You have to be mindful of what you’re doing and why. But that needn’t stop you from exploring and opening up to a world beyond yourself, a world of other people, available to you when you let others in and consider how you might be of service to them.
Not as a doormat, but as a fulfillment of your purpose as a human being, and a means to your own growth and happiness. Me Me Me turns out to be a rather small place to live. And it can get boring. The more we serve, the bigger our world gets. The more connected we feel to those around us, the more alive we feel. This will be different for each of us. Some of us are more introverted and some more extroverted. Some of us love the grand stage, while others prefer the quiet grove.
No matter. We each have our world and our place to contribute and connect, our place of service. We can serve many we do not even meet, at least not in person; by our writing, for example. Dylan, though he’s been on tour forever, is, I am told, a rather shy and almost reclusive man when not performing. An acquaintance once met him at a party in Malibu where he lives. Dylan barely spoke a word. And yet his words have served millions.
Dylan believes in music and in songs, the songs that carry the truth of times past and times present. The songs, and he knows more of them than most people, are his gospel, his sacred texts that tell him about life, love, loss, and the hope of salvation. That’s what he serves, that truth, and the part that he can play in keeping those songs and those timeless truths alive by recording and performing year after year. He’s serving something larger, something outside himself, something beyond the songs. He must care about people—the people who may hear the songs and may learn from them, may find some truth in them and some comfort.
Bob Marley was the same. He sang his heart out for liberation, for equality, for a life of possibility and hope. During his last concert, when he was dying of cancer and he sang, “No Woman, Don’t Cry,” he wasn’t just mouthing words, but living what he believed and what he stood for. Everyone in his band knew he was near the end and that he probably should not be on stage working so hard, but Marley knew, like Dylan knows, that you’ve got to serve somebody. And Marley did so happily, with all his soul, so he could die complete at the age of 36.
I’m in real estate, not a very sexy profession compared to being Bob Dylan or Bob Marley, but it’s the primary way I pay my bills. Up till very recently I compartmentalized it from much of my life and much of who I am. I loved the people. I often loved the houses. But somehow I tainted the whole thing because I thought I was doing it for me, because I needed the money. Which was true, but only partly true.
It was also true that I genuinely enjoyed the clients, even the difficult ones. I have a playwright’s heart and can love even challenging characters. Yet I was missing something. I was looking at the whole thing slightly in the wrong way. I realized that I had been looking at my life in slightly the “wrong” way for too long. I was coming from the position of “it’s about me.” I often still do, but I’m trying to get better at it.
You might say, “That’s very convenient, to look at your work as serving others, while it serves you as well.” It even sounds a bit Machiavellian, where you make your deeds look like good ones, while the whole time you’re lining your own pockets.
Some people question whether we can truly be altruistic. They say that our good deeds benefit us and that’s the real reason we do them, not to help others but to help ourselves.
Maybe that’s true, but I’m certain that the happiest people are those who are connected to others and truly do their best to help them. My 90-year-old mom has a mailman like that. He serves all day long. For years he’s been bringing the mail up the stairs to my mother’s door. He brings her stamps when she needs them. He takes her packages to the Post Office, puts postage on them, and collects from her the next day. I think he’s the happiest mail person I’ve ever met. And it’s because he serves.
Or does he serve because he’s happy?
I think the service comes first and the happiness follows.
It’s a worthwhile experiment either way. Try serving others a bit more rather than focusing too much on yourself and see how it feels. You may find that you’re going to have to serve somebody, or something, to be genuinely happy. It could be beauty you serve. It could be the earth. It could be peace. These things connect to people sooner or later.
Try it out for yourself. See what it feels like. Open yourself up to the possibility of more and more service in your life. Think about what this means for a person in real estate, or a mail person, or a coach, or a nurse, or a teacher, or a police officer, or an electrician, or a mechanic.
In your interactions with others try holding an attitude of service.
“How can I help you?”
“What do you need?”
See what it feels like, and let us know.
I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 680-5572.