This month at Root + River we are musing on Service.

We examine this theme through two lenses: a rooted lens (inward) and a river lens (outward). As with everything at Root + River, we explore the inner and the outer. We see the inner journey of self-reflection, inquiry and awareness and the outer journey of expression, creativity and branding – the act of making a significant mark on the world. 

My husband and I have been the hosts of Thanksgiving dinner for most of the years we’ve been together. He and I make a good team and it brings us a lot of pleasure to host gatherings of family and friends. 

It’s also a lot of effort. 

My favorite parts of the night are when we toast the occasion, our guests, and one another. Seeing those beloved faces surrounding our table and feeling their presence at this moment of reflection, in the spirit of coming together, warms my soul. Later, Jason and I sit down after the grand event is all over, either on the soft couch or at a backyard fire, and we congratulate each other, breathe, relax and recall all the highs and lows of the day. 

It’s in that moment that the thrill of giving, serving and gratitude wash over me and I accept the quiet gifts that serving offers. I believe in service.

I believe in the power of those quiet gifts to enhance our appreciation of life, to encourage our humility and to aid us in remaining connected to one another. 

I also know that when I serve without being connected to myself, I can become embittered, exhausted and resentful. 

Serving under those conditions is painful. It doesn’t have the same elevating effects. In fact, I’m not even sure it can be called serving at all. It’s more sacrificing than serving. Having been there many times, I know. 

So to stay connected, and be able to serve with a pure heart, I have to pause for reflection on a challenging idea: identifying and acknowledging what I need. 

This is true in work, true in life. 

Ever work for someone who struggled to tell you what they needed from you? So frustrating. Have you ever had a boss who could not set healthy boundaries, overworked themselves and expected the same of others? Exhausting. Have you found yourself going through the motions of your work and not getting a drip-drop of personal accomplishment or value from it? Dispiriting. 

These are all examples of being out of touch with our own needs. 

Staying connected to oneself and our own needs during this time of year is difficult. The entire season heralds the power of a centrifugal force to keep our attention away from our deep needs. It tantalizes us with consumerism, requirement and comparison. 

And so, heading into this season of service and giving, I invite you (as I invite myself) to consider what it is you need. 

As with all inward journeys, you’ll need to pack a few questions to make it a reflective trip.

If you had a day to yourself without any obligations to others, how would you spend your time?

What need do you most consistently ignore?

What do you feel most drawn to do? Do you make time for that activity?

Or you can try my favorite question for whenever I feel myself drawn away from myself: What are your needs? 

(Being asked this question about eight years ago brought me up short and re-wired my life because I a: found it offensive, which I knew was a bizarre reaction and b: had no idea.)

For me, identifying my own needs has been a lifelong struggle. While I have had a strong sense of myself for much of my life, I am a highly emotional and empathetic person and so I tend to hide my own needs. I forget that I deserve to have them. I see them as something to sublimate, to save for later, to ignore. 

Once you spend some time reflecting on these questions, consider your answers. Think about how you might choose to tend to your needs regularly, not just when you feel tired or out of sorts. You can start just by asking yourself the question, “What do I need right now?” and then pausing to hear the answer. 

Sometimes your needs might be on the surface, such as, “a drink of water” or “to stop for lunch” – but those are important answers, because they reveal how we may be disconnecting from our physical needs, which is a slippery slope to disconnecting from our emotional, intellectual and social needs. 

Lastly, I have found it is best not to question your needs. I offer that bit of experience having spent a ridiculous amount of time questioning my needs as if they were on the witness stand, with my logical brain conducting a hostile-witness cross-examination.

Don’t do it. It’s a huge waste of time and energy. Your needs just are. That’s it. Accept them.

I think we’re all tired of the cliche, “you can’t serve from an empty cup.” But I find a lot less advice for how to keep that goblet full than I do instances of the tired colloquialism.

I truly believe tending to your needs before you serve, in any capacity will fill you up. 

It will make you a better leader, host or hostess, parent, friend, daughter or son.

And once you have tended to your needs, you can tend to others and experience the quiet, resounding benefits of service. 

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