"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
Over the past few weeks of sheltering in place, I’ve set about reading the dusty shelves of books I’ve accumulated and left untouched. I now have two piles: one for books worthy of rereading or for future reference, and another pile to be donated or given to special people I think will enjoy them.
I’m leaning heavily on my Goodreads account as the Covid-19 virus keeps us quarantined. A good book helps to lift the ban on travel, at least in my mind. But as I slowly build my piles, I’m anxious that their insights will travel through me like a sieve. Even though I post a review on Goodreads to almost every book I finish, some extra effort is still needed.
Today I look back over the last nine books I’ve culled from my shelves, and I ask myself what they all had to say about being of service to the people and causes that move you.
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant is a work of historical fiction set in the dusk of the Renaissance in Florence, Italy. The spirit and culture of the city is giving way to religious fanaticism and the repressive regime of a self-flagellating monk named Savonarola—a real person who built bonfires of precious works of art and literature he deemed profane, and who to this day lives in infamy because of it.
Our protagonist Alessandra is only afforded two options to be of service in this rigid and traditional culture. She can become a wife and mother or she can marry herself to Christ and live out her days in a convent. All that she wants though, is to serve the muse and learn to paint like the masters of Florence.
Alessandra nurtures her subversive dream from childhood, which I think is rare and very special, but her desire to defy her stultifying surroundings is a theme shared by many good stories.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance is a memoir about growing up in the Scots-Irish culture of Appalachia. the author is descended from a key player in the classic blood feud between the Hatfields and McCoys—a nearly 30-year conflict of near mythic proportions in the US American psyche. While the mid-century industrial boom lured families like his out of the mountains and into the steel manufacturing and otherwise bustling towns of the midwest, it didn’t extinguish their fighting spirit.
Vance describes hillbilly culture as a blessing and a curse. One the one hand you have tight-knit and fiercely loyal family ties that define a culture of honor and isn’t shy about turning to violence to preserve itself. On the other hand you have the entrenchment of what Vance describes as a spiritual and material poverty—a kind of cultural pessimism and lack of agency that feels helpless against powers beyond control. This is especially the case since the prosperous legacy of the industrial midwest became the ignominy of the Rust Belt.
Vance prefers an individualist, by-your-bootstraps solution rather than systemic change. For him to emerge from this culture of low social mobility and increasing rates of drug addiction, he says he had to overcome his learned helplessness and instill a new culture of personal accountability and hard work that would eventually take him through an undergraduate degree and on to Yale Law. In short, what he needed was a stint in the Marine Corps.
Military service is a fascinating microcosm of the ethic of service in general. My father served as a drill sergeant in the US Army during the Vietnam War, and he broadly describes the training philosophy of new recruits as a two-step process: first you break them down (their attitude, their ego, their sense of freedom and personal will) and then you build them up with a spirit of fraternity and a newfound sense that they can accomplish goals and execute missions they would have balked at prior to training.
I read another book that dealt with military service; Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds by David Goggins is a stunning memoir of grit and perseverance that highlights what could be possible if we transcend limiting beliefs and our love affair with comfort. Really, and I cannot stress this enough, the personal obstacles and achievements that Goggins recounts are just … staggering. Goggins came through childhood abuse and years of blatant racist taunts and threats to develop the mental fortitude to withstand three Navy Seals Hell Weeks in a single year and to run over a hundred miles in a single 24-hour race … on three days’ preparation.
We didn’t hallucinate that detail. Yes, he knew about the race three days in advance, and he recalls that at the time he hadn’t run farther than a mile in the last six months. This is just a taste of what Goggins has put himself through to find out what he’s made of.
Still, even Goggins must admit that while he was ascending the ranks of the military and professional endurance sports, it didn’t hurt to be immersed in a supportive culture of aspiration and pride in victory. The Alessandras and child-aged J.D. Vances of the world were not so lucky, but even few of them had more at stake than Malala Yousafzai.
I Am Malala is the first-person narrative of a young Pakistani girl’s fight to get her education and advocate for the rights of all Pakistani girls to better themselves through school. It helps that her chief act of service—public speaking to inspire others and rally support for her cause—is wound up tight with her personal passion for learning and competitive speech events at her father’s school. Even so, the encroaching tide of a fundamentalist Taliban regime did what it could to silence her.
As we all know from the news and global excitement over the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, even a bullet in the head couldn’t silence Malala.
But what if our personal call to service is thwarted closer to home? The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson is a novel about a couple of deeply committed performance artists who decide to rope their children into their art pieces. These children—Annie and Buster—are known fondly to fans of their parents’ work as Child A and Child B.
But the novelty of their existence as works of art takes a dark turn when we realize that the Fang parents themselves see their children as little more than Child A and Child B. Our protagonists Annie and Buster must find a way to force their own legacies out of service to their parents’ art and into service for their unique creative destinies.
While The Family Fang is a delightful and hilarious romp, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín is a more reserved, realistic telling of the Irish immigrant experience post-WWII. At first Eilis Lacey feels little need or desire to go to the US and find work, but her mother and older sister think it’s the best thing for her and she goes to please them.
Abroad in New York City, she suffers tremendous homesickness while living in a stuffy boarding house and working most days at a department store. Still, she doesn’t feel free to express this hardship in letters home for fear it will upset her family. At last she finds some peace of mind in pursuit of a college degree in accountancy, and in the attentions of a doting Italian American plumber.
When a tragedy summons her back to Ireland, which vision of life will she serve?
Service to family is also a prominent theme in Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming. As a child and into young adulthood, Michelle dutifully served her parents’ wishes to make the most of her stellar education and land a high-paying job. This portion of the book is actually my favorite: a fascinating, insightful and heartfelt account that doesn’t shirk from controversial issues of race and privilege.
When she meets Barack Obama, Michelle begins to hunger for a deeper, more meaningful pursuit than financial security. In a move that probably horrified her mother, she upends her career in corporate law to focus on giving back.
But as the young couple decides to get serious and start a family, Michelle comes to understand the exhausting tight rope that is preserving the integrity of the family while devoting one’s life to public service.
Considering the complex devotions and compromises of family life, perhaps it was lucky that Peace Pilgrim was not, as she said, “called to the family pattern.” In her book of writings and transcribed speeches (Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words, get a free copy here) she describes a roughly three-step process of spiritual development toward inner peace, harmony and selflessness.
Step One of this process—the preparations phase—includes deciding your unique vocation that provides a service to others and the greater good. For Peace Pilgrim, this vocation was advocacy for peace—in fact, an insightful interplay between inner personal peace and social peace and the cessation of war.
To this end she set off on foot with nothing but the clothes on her back and a few pockets for stashing letter correspondence, a comb, toothbrush and absolutely no money. Just like that she crisscrossed the United States and Canada for almost 30 years and well into old age, sleeping outdoors and only accepting food and shelter from strangers if it was offered first (she never asked). She spoke to university classes and church groups, reporters and all and any who would listen, and she tracked the miles she covered on foot until she hit 25,000 and stopped counting.
Peace Pilgrim’s spiritual commitment to service adds an interesting if hard-to-access dimension—at least for me—to the idea of doing good for the sake of humanity, the planet, and our elusive human potential. If I have no artful impulse within me that resonates with her belief in a loving, creative God, I can still appreciate the profound significance of her preparations, purifications, and relinquishments (the three steps) to bring about not only a loving and uncluttered mind but also an ability to survive and thrive under any imaginable hardship—not for accomplishment or any other satisfaction of the ego (cough, David Goggins, cough), but for something achingly profound.
Okay, perhaps Dave Goggins’ will to shatter any physical or mental limitation he contacts is achingly profound (and keep in mind most of his incredible feats were to generate funds for charity). I know I’ve spent a great deal of mental energy thinking that individualistic pursuits of mastery, greatness, and novel experiences were the key to a good life. But somehow, in spite of myself, I’d often feel a creeping sense of futility and the inkling that perhaps all I am and all I do is only a fleeting tribute to Ego.
The last book I’ll cover helped me through this dilemma. Like a Shadow: The Life and Training of a Guardian Warrior by Tamarack Song is a book I helped edit for the publisher. The author draws from his training and lifestyle in Old Way indigenous culture: a hunter-gatherer philosophy that draws from nature and demands commitment to a pack of individuals who together ensure the group’s survival and the preservation of what they hold dear.
Pack society is comprised of leaders (Song calls them Voices), nurturers, and guardians—the last of whom embark on intense regimens of physical and mental conditioning to make them unerringly competent in silent service to the greater good.
Tamarack Song runs the Teaching Drum Outdoor School in the wilds of Wisconsin, and the specific training protocols described in the book are surely put to use there. He also offers enough ideas for any creative person to undergo serious conditioning in their own urban and suburban jungles.
But what strikes me the most about the book are the maxims that speak to the insight and feeling of devoting yourself to the service of others, and how paradoxically this might unlock the greatest freedom available to us.
“Be as a question,” Song recommends, and by that he means let go of your attachments to assumptions and beliefs about yourself and the world. When we are fully and inexorably engaged in the present moment, there is no room for musing about the past and future and little use for most applications of our disembodied, theoretical knowledge. “The rational mind is an enslaved mind,” he says—in riveting and colossal distinction from the main thread of Western Classical and Enlightenment philosophy.
We must learn to accept the vagaries and paradoxes and half-truths of life, since these are more real to our actual lived experience than the foolhardy assertions of non-contextual “truth” and moral “law.”
By living fully in the moment and embodying our commitment to the pack, we sidestep pesky questions of moral relativism and the stuff that keeps philosophers and diehard political operatives awake at night. These preoccupations about rightness and wrongness, of what’s good for me versus what’s good for you, they’re left to crumble and fade away beside the enormity of the demands of the current moment.
Once you realize you don’t need those ideas, and in fact you function better without them—more nimbly and open when facing any obstacle—you are at least halfway through the work of dissembling the ego that exists to provide you with comfort and prevent you from merging with the staggering potential of life in each fully realized moment.
This is the optimal mindset to devote to a life of service: deep commitment to your pack and unassuming, total engagement with the problems and opportunities of the present.
This is some of what I’ve learned along my reading journey since the pandemic turned all of our lives upside down. The theme of service is particularly salient for an “inessential” worker such as myself, who sees the suffering from afar and feels powerless to make a difference. If this book list has given me anything, however, it’s the knowledge of all the work we can still do in service to the greater good, particularly if we subvert and dissemble the external and internal obstacles in our path and live fully in the glorious opportunity of each moment.