The Dark Side of Service to Others (Part 1)

Helping others is generally a good thing, but depending on the situation can be a bad thing for one or both parties involved. It can be a bad thing when it robs the other person of an opportunity for personal growth. For example, answering a question or telling a person how to do something can rob them of the opportunity to discover and learn themselves, or can reinforce them in a pattern of getting others to do their work for them.

For this post, I will define the dark side of service to others as actions of sacrifice for others that are worse than doing nothing. These are things that harm both parties (lose-lose situations), or things that benefit one party but come at an overly high cost to the other party (wasted potential).

An archetypical lose-lose act of service is giving money to a beggar who is an alcoholic or drug addict. It is a lose-lose situation because the giver has forfeited the opportunity to use the money for something else, and the receiver would be better off not having the money at all, given his or her addiction. The stereotypical solution to the situation is to offer the beggar food instead of money, to which the beggar will often decline.

While the above situation is well known, I want this post to be a starting point for evaluating acts of service you give or receive that are actually holding you back. Many of these services do not have to be abandoned, but can be modified to be beneficial to both parties. Others need to be discarded, because they cannot be reformed given their parameters. While choosing how to serve is a subjective, personal choice, there are some objective guidelines we can apply to judge others’ acts of service as being useful or useless.

There are a few other easy examples I will eliminate before proceeding to grayer areas. Service to strangers and fair-weather friends can be dark if it is pursued over service to family and close friends. Helping people who do not appreciate your help or chronically complain is ill-advised. Acts of service that are useful to others but take up too much of your time and energy may waste potential. Service that is done for narcissistic reasons may be a net loss.

Often, an act of service can be good or bad depending on how it is carried out. Helping a friend with math homework or an essay can easily be good or bad, depending on whether you are helping him or her think critically, or simply doing the work for him or her. This is similar to the parable about giving a man a fish versus teaching him how to fish. There are several reasons why giving the fish (or answers) may seem more appealing. One is that it is easier and takes less time. Another is it fosters dependence on the helper, which can make him or her feel needed and useful. A third reason is the receiver may request or demand it, because he or she refuses or claims to be unable to learn how to fish. All of these reasons can encourage helplessness and discourage self-actualization. A far more useful tutor is one who facilitates the learning process, rather than eliminating it.

Service that is done with expectations, reservations, or resentment is poisoned from the start. If there are expectations, they should be outwardly articulated. It is not productive to volunteer to help someone, expect to be compensated, receive nothing, and then feel resent for not receiving something you specifically asked not to receive. Conversely, while you may feel pressure from your sense of conscientiousness, the person who has volunteered to help you should not pressure you to help him or her in return. If anything, the helper should encourage you to pay it forward by helping someone else, which can go on to create a chain of service and goodwill. While the first person in such a chain gives without receiving, he or she arguably benefits the most, if you subscribe to the belief that it is better to give than receive.

Service to others has a real opportunity cost. You could be using such time, money, mental, and physical effort to work on your own interests, or to develop your talents and goals. If the service you are providing is not helping you to grow, any surplus may be nullified, because the meager benefit to the recipient may pale in comparison to the losses you incur. Time is precious, and time now is more valuable than time in the future, because the degrees of freedom available to you inevitably decline as years pass by. If mastery of a subject or discipline takes 10 years, how many 10-year periods do you have left? Are you using your years to develop your talents or to serve as a butler for others?

Certainly, teaching is the best way to learn. Thus, service to others is a powerful tool for realizing your own potential. However, if such service is mundane, has no teaching opportunities, and does not come close to employing your full ability, you may be better off not doing it, particularly if you have more pressing interests to pursue.

In part 2, I will talk more about situations where serving others is undesirable. There is also the possibility that I will not write part 2 at all. Regardless, there is a lot more I could write about this.

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