So Many Ways To Serve
On Friday I facilitated a fascinating and troubling conversation with a group of service veterans, a few still active, most long-retired. They shared stories about some of the hidden costs of service, from not being around to raise your own kids to returning from active duty in Viet Nam to be harassed and jeered at by civilians. One main theme that ran through the stories was the deep bond they share to this day, recognizing each other as brothers and sisters no matter when or where they served. The word camaraderie was mentioned many times and was obvious in the respectful, affectionate way they listened to each other and encouraged each person to speak.
That bond of sibling-hood seems beautiful to me, as does the kindness every participant displayed towards the others. However, there were also comments expressing the idea that people who don’t participate in military service don’t appreciate their freedom and “don’t know who paid for it.” It didn’t really need that to make very aware of my own complex feelings about the many ways we may be protectors of freedoms of many kinds. During the Viet Nam years, I was an active war protestor and though I certainly never felt or expressed animosity towards anyone who served our country (or any country), I did and do feel strongly that far too many wars are less about righteousness than about political power and corporate interests. I also have strong feelings about the nature of service, and what we may choose to be in service towards. Personally, I want my life to serve not just family and country but the planet and all its myriad, marvelous beings.
Building Powerful Connections
In my lifetime, that tension between those who fought and those who did not has echoed and reverberated through the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, Black power, gay pride and more. All those powerful social justice energies provoked shifts in awareness that are still changing the world, but always so slowly and painfully. I’ve been thinking all weekend about the intense bonding those veterans share, and how sadly rare that camaraderie has been in the various social justice movements I’ve participated in. There were certainly moments of feeling part of something larger than ourselves during peaceful marches and protests, yet perhaps because many people were serving different visions, the unity seemed fleeting.
Several veterans suggested that our society would benefit from a mandatory year or two of basic training or community service at age 18. I don’t know how much the psychology of military training contributes to that deep bonding the veterans share, but I suspect the deliberate breaking down of old patterns and habits that basic training involves may be a factor. When people are ‘trained’ out of old patterns into new ones, they end up with shared common goals and earn healing respect for their new skills. A similar sense of connection often exists among young people voluntarily offering a year or two of community service in AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps or similar groups, again perhaps because of being shaken out of familiar patterns and developing common goals.
Planting Joy For The Planet
For most of my life, I’ve followed the Quaker tradition, and consider both praying for peace and being a social justice activist to be forms of service as valuable as anything involving weapons and destruction of life. As a gardener, I find myself praying for planetary peace that includes the planet, the plants and animals, and the habitats they depend on. In one of my favorite books, a post apocalyptic culture has arisen in which people choose to become Sisters To Trees, replanting places destroyed in destructive battles. I fondly imagine myself to be a Sister To Plants, encouraging people with concerns about climate change to become proactive planters.
Quite often people dismiss such ideas as simplistic and ineffectual, yet proactive planting is far from a bromide. Recent research shows that adding as little as a quarter inch of compost to bare earth or poor soil triggers carbon drawdown almost immediately. Every little backyard pollinator patch may be habitat for a surprising number of tiny creatures, each with important roles to play in local ecology. In my little neighborhood of mostly small, elderly mobile homes, pocket hanky sized gardens support hundreds of living creatures, while a bigger, monocultural lawn can’t support much of anything. When tempted to give in to fear and despair, let’s plant pollinator patches, plant trees, spread some compost. Equally important, let’s teach others to do the same things and find joy in them.