The Service Trap

I recently reviewed the memoir of a friend and former student who, at the tender age of 24, is a poet, teacher, and retired cage fighter. His yet-to-be-published memoir, Caged, focuses on the traps in which he’s found himself, and the way out of those traps. Late last night, when I should have been sleeping, I recognized a trap he had failed to identify. It applies equally to me. It’s the service trap.

This example, though, is from Cameron Conaway, former poet in residence at the University of Arizona’s renowned poetry center. He shows up as scheduled at a nearby Indian reservation, prepared to teach creative writing to elementary-school kids. The teacher forgot he was coming, so she sent him away. Most reasonable people would have pocketed the money and gone back home. Not Cameron. He wandered the campus, poking his head into various classrooms, asking how he could help. After a few attempts, the special-education teacher let him teach geometry.

This is a minor example in an exemplary life, a life filled with service to others. What combination of DNA and personal history allowed — nay, required — Cameron to pursue a life of service? As I’ve indicated previously, Cameron is plagued, like to the rest of us, by the near absence of free will (which is not to be confused with absence of choice). But how did he get there? How did any of us?

The odds against any one of us being on this most wondrous of planets exceed the odds of being a single atom plucked from the entire universe. To quote the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, “In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I that are privileged to be here, privileged with eyes to see where we are and brains to wonder why.” Combine our inherent uniqueness with our one-of-a-kind personal history, and I daresay it’d be impossible to ascertain how any of us ends up doing what we’re doing.

It is clear that some of us are committed to lives of service, and others are not. I’m sure social scientists have identified myriad patterns to justify our quirky lives, without actually explaining them, much less identifying mechanisms underlying them. And that’s just as well, given the magnitude of the task. I’d rather we spend our considerable cognitive surplus on other issues. Consider, for example, how much time we spend tweeting. And then trying to determine if twittering counts at literature. (If you think twit lit is, well, literature, I think you’re an idiot. But I digress.) Never mind who’s drinking which brand of beer in the White House. We’re so absorbed with television and the Internet and who’s screwing whom in the world of celebrities, we can’t bother to focus on the inordinate suffering we’re causing, to humans and other animals. Sixth Great Extinction, including our own species? Whatev. Solving those problems will simply have to wait until after I get a tattoo proclaiming my independence from mainstream culture.

Better days lie ahead. How could they not?
Thanks to CJ for the cognitive surplus link.

Comments 6

  • Woohoo, comment-ability is back! I thought perhaps our beloved Prof Em Guy had gotten tired of our banter and found a good way to tell us to shut up. ;-)

  • Guy —
    Someone once told me — “you can’t save the world, Stan; it doesn’t want to be saved”. And yet my instincts or my genetic programming or my training from my mother, something, propels me endlessly to pursue “issues” that I think are very real and important and others apparently think are not.
    Perhaps this is part of the evolution of complexity in human societies. When the Inuit of Alaska, in small numbers, saw that food supply was low, they might travel as a group to a more favorably location, and even leave behind to die the weak individuals who could not make the journey.
    Today, all lives are precious and must be saved, no matter how unfit the individual to survive on his/her own. Yet, society seems to choose distraction as a “survival” mechanism, perhaps in the programmed hope that past successes will translate (somehow) to future ones. We seem to be programmed to think that everything will work out fine (somehow) if only we get the right political leader or technology. Charlatans like Obama and minny others take this trust and run to the bank with it, and treat their fellows to obscene benefit by exploiting this vague faith by the masses.
    People choose to give away their power and to underutilize their capabilities. I suspect it is programmed into the education and entertainment complex so that the masses can be distracted, mollified, and defanged all at the same time.
    And then there are the few people who are the exceptions, but they can do relatively little for the masses. But good deeds can be done on a small scale and some find that rewarding.

  • Stan the man and any and all:
    I enjoyed your examples, and the quote “…good deeds can be done on a small scale and some find that rewarding.”
    I suppose I also took issue with the same quote I enjoyed from you. Thanks to Guy, I’ve thought about why I didn’t just go home. Some reasons:
    I feel the need to answer to some god or creator part of me believes in.
    I feel like I’m being watched by some thing that straddles a spiritual realm and what we know of reality, and the decisions I make will lead me to better things during my lifetime (based on how this “realm” judges me). Example: I’ve always felt living “morally” and “helping others” led me to the highest points in my life – finding my fiancée, meeting people like Guy, etc. I can’t draw a straight line to compare the spirits with reality, but it’s something I’ve always felt tugging at me. I even feel my healthy eating over the years is why I met her, why I was the Poet-in-Residence, and so on. I’d break down the “how” but I’m an online professor and my fingers hurt from typing.
    I don’t feel they were small deeds. Yes, it was teaching geometry to special needs children for an hour. But that hour meant the world to me because of the scene I created in my mind. Something during this hour – be it my personality, my guidance, a smile, or my explanation of an octagon’s eight sides – would click and change the course of a person’s life. If I viewed it as a small deed, I’d have gone home. There are plenty of gum wrappers and cigarette butts along the road I could have picked up….
    I believe in the “everything will work out fine” but my “but only” isn’t about a political leader or new technology – it’s about my work ethic and a constant pursuit of discovering who I am. If civilization collapses, if I lose the woman I’d die for, if my family wrecks their car on the way home, the only thing I’m left with is me. And if I love who I am and what I’ve done, if I can live in my own body and mind and not spend my life more interested in the latest celebrity death because I’m too afraid or lazy to look inward, then I’ll stand unafraid amongst the people trying to kill me for the milk in my fridge, and I’ll have some tremendous spirits on the other side of the bridge watching and reinforcing my actions.
    Long rant, not sure of the sense it makes, but I’d love to continue chatting!