Is There Sacrifice in Service?

Printed in the  Winter 2024 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Keene, Douglas "Is There Sacrifice in Service?" Quest 112:1, pg 10-11

By Douglas Keene 
National President

Douglas KeeneWe may ask ourselves whether we need to sacrifice something to be of service to others. This depends, of course, on how we define both service and sacrifice in personal terms. An activity in service to humanity may represent a sacrifice for one person, but not for another.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines sacrifice as “to suffer loss of, give up, renounce, injure, or destroy especially for an ideal, belief, or end.” What is lost or given up would depend on the situation. It may be time, effort, resources, reputation, or other commodities which might be of value. This implies a detour from our established path. But if our goal is to be of service to our brothers and sisters, as well as other sentient beings, then altruistic service is not a deviation from the path but is the path itself. In this case, the concept of sacrifice seems less applicable.

One quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi says, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” This suggests that finding yourself means understanding your true nature and allowing your inner divinity to express itself in our world.

Work can be joyful, particularly when it is selfless. This is much easier when it is not seen as a sacrifice but an active choice. In his book Sadhana: The Realisation of Life, the poet Rabindranath Tagore writes, “The most important lesson that a man [or woman] can learn from life, is that there is pain in this world, but that it is possible for him [or her] to transmute it into joy.”

This does not imply that service is easy. It may in fact be quite challenging physically, emotionally, and mentally. The joy comes in following a purpose that is uplifting. If we can recognize the true motivation behind the service and feel that it is genuine and a reflection of our inner nature, then the work becomes lighter.

George S. Arundale, the third international president of the Theosophical Society, writes in his 1913 book The Way of Service: “There are two aspects of the unity which those that would serve must understand: The aspect of pain and the aspect of joy. The one teaches of a common struggle which all must share, while the other proclaims a common goal toward which all are bound.” We must recognize the pain and suffering in the world and decide how we may best address it. Will we ignore it and try to avoid it as much as possible? Will we decide that it is someone else’s problem and pursue our own worldly desires? Or will we take steps to ease it, however limited our contribution? Sometimes it is as simple as supplying compassion and support for a loved one. Some people develop skills that allow greater intervention, such as feeding the poor or healing the sick. In any event, it requires treating others with kindness and respect.

There is ample opportunity for anyone so inclined to contribute to uplifting others. Annie Besant said, rather starkly, “Better remain silent, better not even think, if you are not prepared to act.”

We may not realize the unseen benefit of acting virtuously. We may not even witness the result of our work, but this is not critical. Tangible results are not always equated with success in a spiritual sense. We are told repeatedly that it is intention that matters, not outcome. Furthermore, beyond any direct effects, we may be observed and serve as an inspiration to others, modeling selfless behavior. Author Marianne Williamson has noted, “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” We need not concern ourselves with all the ripples that service can provide, for we must focus only on our own intentions and our own efforts. Selfless behavior reflects the divine, incorporated in each human heart, longing for an opportunity to manifest.

As we recognize the unity of all life, we must realize that service to others is essentially service to the whole of which we are part. This principle is stated in the first fundamental proposition of The Secret Doctrine as expressed by Damodar K. Mavalankar, an early writer and member of the Theosophical Society: “We must consider the whole mankind as one brotherhood for the whole creation has emanated from that eternally Divine Principle which is everywhere, is in everything and in which is everything and is therefore the source of all. We should therefore do all we can to do good to humanity.” It is in this light of unity that we should dwell. We are part of humanity, a drop in the ocean perhaps, but one universal entity all the same. Whatever good or evil we perform affects not only ourselves but all of the living, vibrant whole.

When we begin to look, we see many opportunities for service. How do we determine the one that is most essential? This is a challenge for each of us, and the answer will vary by individual. The process may begin with small steps. One apparently insignificant decision leads to an opportunity; a decision there leads to another. We gradually follow a path that would not have been available to us had we made other choices.

We may have a passion for a particular training. We may be thrust into a situation where a particular act of service is necessary, such as caring for a disabled loved one, or sudden new responsibilities, such as raising children as a single parent. In any case, we can be assured that our life circumstances place us in situations where we may grow if we choose that opportunity. Even a rejection of that opportunity will have consequences, enabling us to choose differently if similar situations arise in the future.

H.P. Blavatsky writes, “Each individual must learn for himself, through trial and suffering, to discriminate what is beneficial to Humanity; and in proportion as he develops spiritually, i.e., conquers all selfishness, his mind will open to receive the guidance of the Divine Monad within him, his Higher Self, for which there is no Past or Future, but only an eternal Now.”

This process can be imagined as a cycle. As we act selflessly in service, we begin to unfold spiritually. As we unfold spiritually, we develop deeper insights into our own purpose and pathway. As we see this purpose more clearly, we will better understand how to apply our energies. Over time, this spiral will turn, ever increasing in strength and clarity. What greater opportunity could we receive than this?