02/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Mar 17, 2015

What's All This Fuss About Service?

What's all this fuss I hear about Service lately? I mean, who cares, really?

Perhaps that's the real question: Who cares? Do you care?

Having read so many cynical comments to various articles in the HuffPo about service last week, I was reminded of Gilda Radner's old Saturday Night Live routines where she played Emily Litella, the somewhat muddled news commentator opposite Chevy Chase and Jane Curtin.

Amongst many classics, she said: "What is all this fuss I hear about the Supreme Court decision on a "deaf" penalty? It's terrible! Deaf people have enough problems as it is!" When corrected that the word was "death penalty," she would come back with a wonderful apology that usually went like this: "Oh, that's very different. Never mind."

Perhaps the cynical have the same understanding issue that Emily had. Perhaps they hear the call to Service from Barack Obama and ask: "What's all this fuss I hear about Serve Us lately? Shouldn't the government be taking care of us instead?"

May I suggest that this is very different? Indeed, the focus on Service brings home an old challenge in social change that was perhaps never more true than it is now: "if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem."

With so many complaints emanating from anonymous cynics on these pages and across the 'net, perhaps it would be worthwhile to take a look at what it is that we actually care about and what response-ability we have to that which we care about.

I understand that Barack Obama will emphasize responsibility in his inaugural speech on Tuesday. Having no idea where he will take the idea, I'm hopeful that the theme will include the notion that each of us is response-able, meaning that each of us has the ability to respond.

My assumption is that most cynical posts come from people who care and they exercise their response-ability as criticism. The challenge is how to translate the caring into something more meaningful than criticism and complaint. As my spiritual teacher told me one day as I launched into yet another criticism, "it is much easier to criticize than it is to create."

(For more context on the relationship between caring and complaining, you might find an older post relevant where we show that complaining is a sign of a preferred future about which you are willing to do nothing, other than complain.)

So how about Obama's emphasis on Service these days? What's that about? Is it about somehow trying to transfer the response-ability for serious social issues from the government to individuals? Is it about trying to get people to work for free?

To me, Barack Obama is working hard to get us to wake up to the fact that if we care, we must act on that caring, and that Service is one magnificent way to take action.

What Can You Do?

There have been many posts suggesting ways to get involved in projects large and small, ranging from cleaning up a local park, to visiting the elderly in nursing homes and hospitals, to helping out in a homeless shelter or food bank. Certainly these are good and honorable endeavors; however, for some, these are giant steps that appear daunting in one way or another. Finding some micro steps might be good.

If you care, and would like to Serve, but are unsure how, consider this idea for a moment.

According to, Service means to be helpful or useful or an act of helpful activity.

So, what do you care about? How could you be helpful? Is there some issue confronting you, your family, your community, or the planet that you care about? If so, is there some microscopic step you can take that by itself could be seen as meaningless, yet if enough people engaged similarly, might make a difference?

Take the environment as an example: How could you Serve the environment? It could be as simple as becoming slightly more conscious as you walk somewhere today. Do you ever "step over the trash" you see on the sidewalk? How about picking up that discarded can, paper, or coffee cup and dropping it in the trash bin?

What difference could that possibly make? Not much I suppose and yet if you did that, and I did that, and so on, we might notice a small bit of difference in the amount of litter and environmental clutter we encounter each day.

Service doesn't have to be a huge event, requiring enormous dedication and resolve. That's fine if you are there already; if not, how about finding some small step you can take that you would find meaningful? Even if no one else notices?

You might even consider something as small as how you might Serve your own family or friends. Could you spend a bit more quality time with your son or daughter? Is there someone down the hall or across the street who has suffered a loss (job, family member, etc) for whom a caring visit would be welcome?

My spiritual teacher reframed an old cliché that seems particularly useful now: "It's not give until it hurts; it's give until it helps.

Interested in helping out today? Click here for a list of ideas...

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)


If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

You can buy Workarounds That Work here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)