I remember taking a career test when I was in the second grade. From this, it was determined that I would be best suited for a “service/helping profession.” This was the first time that I ever heard of a job described as a “service.” When I asked my mom, she said that a “service profession” was one in which your job was to serve others, like being a teacher or doctor or counselor. That’s weird, I thought. I thought you had a job to make money. In other words, to serve yourself.
Later in a college, I sat next to a guy who had a tattoo on his ankle. It was a large tattoo, about 4-5 inches high, of (presumably) a Chinese character. At one point during the course, the guy sitting in front of me asked my neighbor about his tattoo. “What does it say?” he asked. My neighbor replied that it read “Servant.” The guy in front of me let out an incredulous gasp, almost laughter. “Servant? Why would you get the word ‘servant’ tattooed on your leg?” My neighbor replied, matter-of-factly, “So that I’m always reminded that I’m a servant of God.” The guy in front of me managed an awkward “oh, uh, that’s cool” followed by an uncomfortable silence.
Given the culture we live in, I admire my desk neighbor’s tattoo. Not because of its religious overtones, but because it expressed a kind of humility, a symbol of dedication to someone or something other than himself. It’s a reminder that his existence isn’t the most important one; it serves as a buffer against that impulse we all have to look out for Number One.
My neighbor’s tattoo also answers one question I think we all ask ourselves at some point: Why am I doing this? When you work to serve others, the answer to that question is easy. There’s no justification involved; it just is. Even on those days when things couldn’t possibly get worse but they do just to spite you, you can at least take solace in knowing that you’re somehow fulfilling a greater good. I believe that the most rewarding life is spent in the service of others.
I didn’t know it then, but that 2nd grade career test turned out to be right. I became a teacher. The first novel I ever taught was Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. In the novel, the father’s health is failing, and his son is worried. He wants his father to rest. The father, however, tells him he cannot. He explains that although his life span is short, he “can fill that span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant.” “It is hard work,” he tells his son, “to fill one’s life with meaning. . . . A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here.”
In our carpe diem world, we sometimes forget that it’s not about doing what you want because life is short. If life is short, then all the more reason we need to make it matter. And think, then, how wonderful it would be to be worthy, finally, of rest.