When Alexis de Tocqueville described the unique character of democracy in America in the 1830s, he hinted at its greatest flaw. “Aristocracy makes a chain of all the members of the community, from peasant to the king,” he observed, but ”democracy breaks that chain and frees each link.” The unbridled individualism of democratic societies became one of Tocqueville’s most trenchant observations and salient themes. In a society that enshrines liberty and equality as ideals for its citizens, what’s the glue? What’s the antidote to “ME, ME, ME”?
The answer, even from early on, was service to one’s fellows, equals on life’s path. When de Tocqueville visited American shores, he was impressed by the many “voluntary associations” and “benevolent societies” that had been formed to assist neighbors, and aid the impoverished, the sick, the insane, and the immigrant. When a citizen regards his or her neighbors as equals “the notion that it his duty, as well as the interest of men, to make themselves useful to their fellow-creatures” prevails, Tocqueville noted. “[H]e sees no particular ground of animosity to them, since he is never either their master or their slave, his heart readily leans to the side of kindness… by dint of working for the good of one’s fellow citizens, the habit and the taste for serving them is at length acquired.”
Voluntary associations and non-profits – from the Red Cross to the Salvation Army – have a long history, deeply embedded in a tradition of service to our fellow travelers on the journey. They are organizational expressions of the noble will to serve, and many do so on Giving Tuesday as well as other times of the year. “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others,” Gandhi reminded us. That service, going the extra mile for the person in need, elevates not just the needy but the giver. It becomes the glue that keeps us together, evinces our deeper concern, regardless of our disparate ideas, circumstances, resources, or ethnicities.
This month our book recommendations feature many individuals and organizations that have gone the extra mile for service of others. But on the elementary school level, how is the habit of service best cultivated?
Ask the kids: how can they in their daily lives be of service to each other, to their families, to their school, and to the needy in their communities? They’ll come up with great answers. Here are some we’ve heard: Befriending the kid who is alone on the playground. Helping the teacher clean up before recess. Listening to the first grader who seeks the fifth grader’s attention. Giving some of my lunch to the child who forgot hers. Helping a classmate understand a tricky concept or giving my friend notes for a lesson she missed. Setting the table for Dad and Mom before they ask. Collecting canned food for the local pantry. Serving a community dinner.
Kids can be your best resources and experts: ask them! And watch the spirit of service become the Gorilla Glue for your community.