The Spirit of Service

by Scott London

Robert Coles“There is a call to us, a call of service,” Dorothy Day once said, “that we join with others to try to make things better in this world.”

This phrase gave rise to the title of Robert Coles’s 1993 book, The Call of Service, a meditation on the meaning of voluntary service — the kind we offer to others and the impact it has on us in the process.

I was quite inspired by the book when it came out. Coles himself seemed to exemplify the spirit of service in his writing, in his teaching and in his own personal life.

After reading The Call of Service, I went on to read several other books by Coles and eventually to write an article about his work. I then posted the piece on my website. This was in the early days of the Internet, before most people had discovered e-mail or started searching the Web.

One day, about a year later, the phone rang. When I answered, the voice at the other end said, “Hello, Scott? This is Robert Coles. I just read an essay you wrote about me. It was a very fine piece of work, and I just wanted to say thank you.” He didn’t use a computer, he told me, but a friend of his had run across my article on the Internet, printed it out and mailed it to him.

We went on to talk for almost an hour. He called me one of the “finest interpreters” of his work, which was quite a compliment given that he has been the subject of countless newspaper and magazine profiles, at least a half-dozen TV documentaries, and several major biographies.

He wasn’t very interested in talking about himself, it turned out. He kept on asking me about my work, my family, how I liked living on the West Coast, and so on. It was a warm and inspiring conversation, one that subsequently blossomed into a friendship.

Parents League Review 2012After our talk I asked myself what it was that prompted Coles to call me that day. I can’t be sure, but I believe it was something deeper than just the impusle to say thanks. It was more likely a desire to give something back. It was a gesture born of gratitude, not obligation or duty. A kind of reaching out. And that, I think, is the essence of true service — a desire to acknowledge another and give thanks in whatever small way we can.

To write a book about service is one thing, I realized, but to exemplify it in our everyday lives is quite another. Coles taught me that in a vivid and direct way.

I was reminded of this episode because my essay on Robert Coles — the one that prompted him to call me that day — has just been reprinted as part of a special tribute to Robert Coles in the new issue of Parents League Review. The man and his work are still timely, perhaps more so than when I first discovered him almost twenty years ago. My piece is called A Way of Seeing: The Work of Robert Coles.