Selfish Service: The Danger of Doing Good

Creative Commons License photo credit: babasteve

I hear a lot about seva, or selfless service, in the yoga circles I run in. And for a long time I’ve harbored a quiet skeptic within, grappling with questions about the true meaning of “selflessness” and whether my motivations to ‘serve’ are selfless at all. I’d like to open myself up a little bit here and share some unresolved questions I have ricocheting around in my mind. Please know that this article is not intended to criticize anyone engaged humanitarian, charity, or seva-related causes. It’s an invitation to join in a discussion I hope will help advance the way service is understood in the yoga world.

The Arrogance of Selflessness

For as long as I can remember I’ve been eager to “give back” to my community. I was the little girl begging mom to stop the car so I could give my granola bar to the homeless man and asking why he was on the street to begin with. But I’d be the last person to claim my acts of service are “selfless.” Quite the contrary, I’m realizing more and more over the past couple years that the reasons I feel driven to “serve” are extremely selfish. And I’m not just talking about that little old cliche “you get back more than you give”.

I’m starting to think that the very term “selfless service” is a misnomer, one that ever-so-subtly degrades the relationship between giver and receiver. And lately I’ve been grappling with the very uncomfortable possibility that my own well-meaning attempts at selfless service actually have the potential to do harm.

Creative Commons License photo credit: expertinfantry

See, when we “give” to someone under the false premise that we’re only in it for them, that we are handing them something from the moral high-ground of “selflessness”, we create a dangerously codependent power dynamic. All of a sudden we need the person we’re “serving” to validate my feelings of saintlihood and they need us for whatever good or service we’re providing — whether it be money, food, or yoga classes. I don’t mean to be harsh, but that’s not service. That’s ideological enslavement.

The notion that we can suddenly detach from our egoic longings to be need or appreciated in order to engage in acts of “selfless service” doesn’t make logical or scientific sense. The ‘self’ is an integral part of who we are. It’s not just some esoteric concept; we are physiologically bound to our ‘self’ish inner narratives by the very flesh within our skulls. As long as we’re human beings with frontal lobes and cerebral cortexes, service is inevitably an act of selfishness — and I don’t think that’s something to be ashamed of. Our willingness to acknowledge our selves, to show up as a real person — with all our personal motivations, pitfalls, and desires — is what allows us to enter the relationship of service to begin with.

The Pitfalls of Sending Money

As privileged people (myself included) become more and more aware of the shamefully disproportionate gap between rich and poor (thanks, World Wide Web), we often experience a powerful and angst-provoking need to help our fellow human beings. Usually the most immediate means we have do something about suffering is to simply send money. I don’t know about you, but pressing that donate button soothes the pangs of guilt I feel when I see pictures of starving children in Africa, makes me feel better when I realize my coffee was brewed from their blood, sweat, and tears.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Alex Reyes

I think it’s easy to get so wrapped up in our desire to end suffering that we fail to realistically evaluate whether our actions are really helping. And I’m by no means the only one raising a flag to the potential detriments of well-meaning service, though I may be one of the few to voice concerns about this in the yoga world. In a bold and incisive article called Why Foreign Aid is Hurting Africa, Dambisa Moyo says:

“… evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that aid to Africa has made the poor poorer, and the growth slower. The insidious aid culture has left African countries more debt-laden, more inflation-prone, at increased the risk of civil conflict and unrest… Aid is an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster.”

Moyo goes on to describe how large sums of governmental aid allow corrupt, ineffecient governments to stay in power. Even channeling money to small local organizations, she says, can create relationships of dependency, and when the money runs out projects often collapse and people are left in worse conditions than they started. She acknowledges that emergency funds are useful in the short term but “are at best band-aid solutions and can never be the catalyst for long-term economic development and meaningful reduction in poverty.”

Creative Commons License photo credit: oneVillage Initiative

I have to be honest, when I first stumbled upon this article a couple years ago I clicked away… I thought to myself: “No, what I’m doing is different.”  To me, Moyo seemed like an angry, extremist academic, and I felt there were much worse evils in the world to be attacking than those seeking to lift the 3rd world out of poverty. Most of all though, I didn’t want to believe that my longing to help could actually be doing harm.

But I’m a questioner, I’m a thinker, and my mind doesn’t let me off the hook that easy. The unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach didn’t go away, and over the past several months I’ve done a lot of re-thinking about what it means to truly serve another human being. I’ve considered what it’s felt like for me when I’ve been the beneficiary of service from others. And the common thread I keep coming back to is relationship. I’ve been given money, I’ve been given resources, but the material items never made a difference unless that relational element was there. Real, long-lasting, unconditional presence from another human being. That’s what’s served me. That’s what’s helped me lift myself out of the darkness.

My All-Too-Selfish Journey

I spent a good portion of last year fundraising for an organization in Africa I whole-heartedly believe in. My hope was to join them for several months, to conduct a scientific study on the benefits of yoga for women with HIV/AIDS, to learn about how the hell people in such dire poverty manage to find joy in the circumstances they’re in. But a few months ago I decided to put a hold on my fundraising… at least temporarily. The truth is, I still feel unsettled with these questions. I don’t know that a couple months is truly enough time to form the relationship I believe is at the heart of service.

What if my attempts at “service” were just re-establishing the oppressive dynamics (wealthy whites handing alms to poor blacks) that that put them into poverty to begin with?

The Eye
Creative Commons License photo credit: John Steven Fernandez

I also started questioning my motives. Why was I so eager to go to Africa? Why travel hundreds of thousands of miles when there were people I could serve right in my own backyard? As I took a step back, I started to see myself as that naive little child handing the granola bar to the homeless man on the street, thinking I could make it all better with the token I just so happened to have in my hand. Who was I to think that I knew what those women wanted or needed… maybe yoga wasn’t what they needed at all? Most importantly, I realized that without maintaining an ongoing relationship with them, any positive impact I did have would be temporary at best.

So as fate would have it, the funding for my research didn’t come through and life forced me to take major pause. In the stillness, I’ve organically grown into building a much simpler model of service in my home community. It doesn’t require any major funding or complicated scientific studies; all I have to do is simply show up… share my time, my presence, and sometimes my skills as a yoga teacher with anyone who finds it valuable. For now, I’ve put my wish to go to go overseas and connect with my broader human family on hold until I can do so within a program that allows me to be there an extended period of time.

I’m realizing that the path of service I feel called toward is rooted in mutualistic, long-term relationships, and I have to acknowledge my own selfishness in order to step into that. Most importantly, I’ve realized that I have more to give than just money or scientific know-how. I choose to share my (albeit very selfish) self.

A group of us after teaching yoga at a local homeless shelter

I want to be clear, I’m not arguing that donating money is a bad thing. That model of service can be irrefutably valuable, especially in times of disaster or when immediate and temporary help is needed. There are organizations that use the fundraising model in an extremely mindful and intelligent way, building relationships with locals and constantly re-evaluating how their service lands. There are also organizations that actually establish themselves on the ground in the countries they’re serving — creating a foundation for the long-lasting relationships I am talking about.

But I would like to open a dialogue around the challenging issues I’ve brought up in this article — about when service does do harm and how our illusions of selflessness might perpetuate that.  Let’s hear what you think:

Do you think “selfless service” exists, or is it a misnomer we need to do away with altogether?

Can sending disembodied money to people in third world countries just re-establish the oppressive systems that put them in poverty to begin with?

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- who has written 43 posts on Yoga Modern.

Chelsea Roff is a writer by day and yoga teacher by night, a weaver of words as well as of asanas. She is Managing Editor at YogaModern.com, and her writing has been featured by Yoga Journal, Elephant Journal, Wanderlust Festival and the Hanuman Festival. Chelsea is passionate about using online media to inspire action that serves a greater cause -- whether it be the expansion of knowledge, support of our global community, or improvement of planetary and personal health. She travels the country teaching yoga in the most non-traditional of spaces, from cocktail parties to public protests to centers for at-risk youth. In Dallas, Chelsea helped start a yoga service organization that brings yoga classes to people in homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers, and prisons. Chelsea currently lives in Santa Monica, CA, where she can be found cartwheeling across the beach, hiking in the mountains, and practicing yoga poses on her little pink scooter.

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