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Self-service syndrome


They’re just in it for themselves’. ‘They put their careers before the people’. These sorts of criticisms of our politicians are common currency in the media. You hear it from studio audiences, in vox pop clips in news and documentaries, on social media. I wish to disagree. Too often this sort of comment is just lazy thinking – mixed of course with some understandable frustration. It’s often the result of seeking simple answers to complex questions.

There are of course those politicians whose first interest is in their own careers. They sound like robots and frauds as they climb the greasy pole of power. You will find them in the present government. But they exist in all parties, in all organizations, in all groups – the self-seekers are everywhere.

But then there are those politicians, I believe, who are genuinely committed to public service. They try to serve the people in their constituencies well. They work long hours and may put themselves at risk. The murder of Labour politician Jo Cox in June 2016 during the EU referendum campaign demonstrates that. Most MPs receive abuse directly and indirectly on social media. It takes a particular kind of commitment to accept this sort of life.

But this is high profile stuff. Most examples of public service fly below the radar of news outlets.

I think of those carers who visit our disabled aunt now lost in the bewildering world of dementia. They come to her home every day of the year, four times a day. They offer simple acts of caring – personal hygiene, feeding, kind words – without which she simply would not have survived. They go way beyond the call of duty. They genuinely care – about us too. I am full of admiration for them.

There are those former students of ours who have gone to work for NGOs - Oxfam, Christian Aid, World Vision, ADRA and others. Some have worked for government agencies or the UN. They sometimes put themselves at risk in very deprived and volatile parts of the world. I get real satisfaction from the thought that I was a small part of an education which led them into public service of this sort.

I think of friends and neighbours who serve as school governors, who work to maintain a neglected railway, who are active in local politics, who volunteer at a hospice, who drive the elderly to hospital appointments.

I am well aware that mixed with this spirit of public service there can be a greater or lesser degree of ‘do-gooding’ personal ambition and/or CV building. But who among us is entirely free from mixed motives?

Self-service is deep in our DNA. So much of our lives is shaped by self-service – supermarkets, banks, petrol stations – it’s quicker and cheaper. But actually there is a price to this way of living. And that is the loss of community, of human contact, the loss of the experience of investing time, energy, attention in other people. Talking to someone you don’t need to talk to can so often enrich life.

Jesus talked about the greatest being servants, the last being first, about finding yourself by losing yourself in the life of the community. I think he was on to something.


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