The Need to Serve

This blog post was featured in the Huffington Post on August 26, 2015.

I feel sorry for people in an old age home. Or is it called a retirement home? Sitting, waiting for life to end. Rooms defined by pathos. Sad.

Yes, there are retirement communities which are active, going to the theater, going on trips, having parties, but still…the residents are in a waiting mode: waiting for death to come.

But think of it, we are dying the moment we are born, but as we grow, as we marry and reproduce and raise a family, not for a second are we in a waiting mode for death.  

What is the difference?

The difference is in doing something for others.

By contributing, by serving others, we feel alive. In a retirement home the residents serve no one.

And it does not need to be that way. Some seniors are active, still able to contribute as much as their health allows at what we refer to as the sunset of their life. They volunteer. You can see them in the lobby of hospitals. Old men or women directing you where to go. Or you can see them at some airports welcoming people off the plane and answering questions.  Volunteering. Serving others is what makes them feel that they are still needed and thus alive. They are volunteering as much for their own needs as they are to satisfy the needs of others.

Who dies the fastest? Those who feel life ended for them. And when does life end? When they believe that no one needs them anymore.

In an extended family where multiple generations live together, grandparents feel more alive.  The grandchildren need them.

As long as you have children to take care of, or to take care of each other, or you are volunteering and sensing you are contributing, life is still very much present.

This need to serve is not only reserved for those who have retired. I was talking to a woman in her twenties. She was eager to get married.

“Why?” I asked her. “I want to take care of someone,” she said.

I know people who are clinically depressed. They take drugs to survive. Their behavior changed drastically to functioning normally and without drugs when their child was born. Someone needed them now; they had to be there for the child.

Another clinically depressed person I know well got off anti-depressant drugs when he acquired a dog he had to take care of.

This need to serve is deeply ingrained in us and is what keeps us alive. And the more and better we serve others, the more and better we serve ourselves: we live longer.

It seems to me that there is no such thing as altruistic behavior. The claim that altruistic behavior has no rewards is not true.  The altruist receive plenty: his is the reward of being alive. More alive than if not serving others.

This need to serve is what makes people choose the teaching and social work professions. Even the businessmen who appear to be exploiting the market rather than serving it will claim that they perform a helpful function. Even if it is not true. They need to make that explanation to themselves to feel alive. It is a very potent need that we all have.

How about criminals, murderers? How does that work?

I wonder if they believe they are doing something helpful or in their mind have a justification? Sick as it may be.

What do you think?

Just thinking.

Ichak Kalderon Adizes