| He who wishes to live long must serve
– Herman Hesse
In his novel, The Journey to the East, Herman Hesse tells of an expedition undertaken by a secret society called the League. The narrator reveals that “Our goal was not only the East, or rather the East was not only a country and something geographical, but it was the home and youth of the soul, it was everywhere and nowhere, it was the union of all times.”
Traveling with the group is a servant named Leo. His manner and competence provides the travelers with a sense of purpose and direction to such a degree that when he suddenly disappears in the midst of their journey, the entire company falls into disarray, each person convinced that Leo had been carrying something essential for them to continue. The group disbands, and the journey is abandoned.
In a remarkable article by Rachel Naomi Remen,* distinctions are drawn between the tasks of helping, fixing and serving. Helping, she says, is based on an inequality of strength, and that both parties sense this throughout the course of their relationship. Similarly, fixing implies that something is broken, and that the one who fixes is whole. Again, an unequal, although unavoidable, relation is established.
There are many opportunities for physical therapists to experience helping and fixing. Such work forms the bulk of acute care and sports medicine. The field of rehabilitation is full of protocols designed to resolve the problems inherent to weakness and fracture.
But when pain or dysfunction persist despite our efforts, we might consider offering service. In order to do that, it is necessary to understand what specifically I mean by that.
Remen describes service as a relationship between equals that is characterized by trust, surrender, acceptance and even mystery. She emphasizes the advantages of service for the therapist who provides it; “I am as served as the person I am serving. When I help I have a feeling of satisfaction. When I serve I have a feeling of gratitude.”
When I speak to my colleagues about becoming a servant, their initial reaction is often negative. Understandably, they equate this role with the Latin root servus, meaning “slave,” but I mean something quite different here.
I’m speaking of the kind of service only a true leader can provide. Think of what is expected from the King or Queen in a monarchy. In this sense, the one who serves could not be more esteemed or aspire to a higher station. This is because it is understood that they are not the servant of any individual, but of something much greater. I want to emphasize that a therapist should never act as a servant to any patient, but as one who through maturity and experience can see the strength and wholeness within others. This attitude raises both parties to an equal footing and decreases the distance between them that the judgement necessary for helping and fixing normally creates. It might be said that service is not a job, it’s a calling. When we serve, we are elevated in an invisible but very real sense, and so are those around us.
After years of aimless wandering, Hesse’s narrator finds Leo living in a nearby town. He discovers that, among other things, Leo is an expert at massage. I thought this was an interesting detail.
The day after they are reacquainted, Leo takes him to the great hall of the League where his presence has been requested. While there, the narrator is surprised to find many of his old friends and fellow travelers. He sees famous artisans and philosophers all working in an environment conducive to creativity and accomplishment.
In the throne room, he waits for the leader of all this to ascend the High Throne.
Perhaps you can guess who he discovers has always been the most exalted member of the League.
* “In the Service of Life” Noetic Sciences Review, Spring 1996