Becoming Great Through Service

"Everyone can be great..." Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said a half century ago, "because everyone can serve."

Decades later, we can still hear King's cadence and feel the long reverberation of his voice and see the way in which his eyes met his audience in seriousness and spirit. And we can also imagine the power of his message: the greatness of the nation lies in our capacity to give of ourselves to others, to discover ourselves in the eyes and hearts of those who hunger for peace and justice. Even today, we can remember that there was a time when our country believed that it is in giving of ourselves to others that we receive in return our own best selves.

But King lived in a different time and sadly, for most Americans, his words are as inspiring as they are dated. We've grown up now and can't be naively charmed by selfless ideals. Greatness still calls but the path is more likely to pass through Silicon Valley or American Idol than through the Peace Corps or Americorps. King's vision is the rhetoric of a bygone era--a distant memory of a political moment in time, now gone. We're more suspicious now and service seems quaint and faded. It's like a picture on the mantle of a hairstyle or outfit gone out of fashion.

But fashions go and come back and it's time that the ideals of service came back into fashion too. It's time to revisit service as a touchstone of the American mindset and refresh the spirit of service which has so often distinguished our nation as a center of creativity, compassion, innovation, and healing. "It's time," as John Bridgeland, the Co-chair of "The Franklin Project" said last week, "that our culture not just applauds the service of a few but expects it from all." Bridgeland and hundreds of colleagues are coming together this week to launch a new call for an old ideal: a year of service should be an expectation for every American.

Thankfully, I've had a front row seat for over a decade at a virtual championships of service where the spirit of compassion and creativity and healing never went out of fashion: the Special Olympics movement. For the past 45 years, millions of average citizens who have nothing in common other than the desire to share themselves in pursuit of something meaningful and real have built the Special Olympics Movement through citizen leadership and action. Today, volunteers of every geography, religion, ethnicity, and political persuasion join together to create over 70,000 Special Olympics competitions every year. For them, King's words aren't rhetoric; they are a description of their experience. In their service, they have felt greatness. Through their service, they have seen greatness. With their service, they have come to know from experience the bravery, grit, and joy of greatness revealed when the most forgotten are given their moment to shine.

Some call this massive global workforce a volunteer army. Some call it the mobilization of social capital. Some call it the development of civil society. Still others call it service.

By any name, it is a force. It is the most powerful means of social and political and cultural change ever discovered. It always starts when the desire to be part of something bigger meets the power to make a difference in something very small. Once unleashed, it cannot be stopped.

And yet the ideals of service have changed from King's time and perhaps the Franklin Project's call for national service is a good time to think anew about the values and the purpose of service. In Special Olympics for example, we are wary of some of the associations around the word "service." Some think of it as repaying a debt. Others remind their children "there but for the grace of God go we." Still others exhort the "privileged" to serve the "disabled," or the "poor."

All of these, though often well intentioned, have the effect of creating a subtle but unmistakable hierarchy: the givers are strong and the receivers are weak. Patronizing words creep into the mix. Service becomes vulnerable to becoming pity. Donors become self-congratulatory. Receivers become all the more stigmatized in their need.

That's not the kind of service we need today. And it's not the kind of service we've found in Special Olympics. We tell citizens not to serve out of pity for our athletes but rather to meet them; not to help out of sympathy but out of respect; not to loathe their conditions but to discover their gifts. We believe that great movements of social and cultural and political change are rooted in the invitation of the prophet Isaiah who called those who serve, "repairers of the breech." In this way, we invite people from different walks of life to learn from, care for, communicate with and understand each other--to repair the divisions, fears and misunderstandings that separate us from one another and indeed, from ourselves.

In our world, service is a relationship. And rare is the volunteer who doesn't agree that he or she is as much a recipient as a giver; as much a learner as a teacher.

We see the relational power of service every day in Special Olympics. We see it in our volunteers in Kabul, Afghanistan who have come to understand bravery from teaching sports and unleashing the joy and bravery of orphans and other children with intellectual challenges in their city. We see it in celebrities like Rafer Johnson who found in the example of the athletes of Special Olympics his life's purpose: to heal the divisions in his own country. We see it in the grit of athlete Danielle Liebl who was humiliated over and over again in school only to become a sparkling advocate for tolerance who moved me to tears with her wisdom.

Who is the giver and who the receiver? It is impossible to distinguish.

So we join the call to national "service" but with a caution: what we are seeking is not just the fixing of problems or the transfer of goods and services from one group to another. Instead, what we are really seeking is to become a more united people, more at one with our neighbors, and less alienated from each other and from ourselves. That unity will come from openness, belonging, understanding, solidarity. It will come from a culture of service "with" not service "to." It will not come from through guilt or haughty noblesse.

A generation ago, Peace Corps volunteers were sometimes accused of being perpetrators of the arrogance of first world privilege. But the architects of that bold experiment, sensitive to this danger, insisted that Peace Corps volunteers live in villages, speak local languages, live as the citizens of their host communities live. They understood that the only way to serve was first to learn to see eye-to-eye with another and in so seeing, to create understanding, trust, respect. Only then can any change take place and only then can the ultimate change--creating love and unity among people--have a chance.

That is an approach to service still worthy of our nation, of our shared faith in our ideals, of our deep faith in the values and gifts that we have been given. I hope we can bring it to life anew during these times of change, breakdown and fear. That kind of greatness still awaits us and it has never been needed more.

This post is part of a collaboration between The Huffington Post and The Aspen Institute, in which a variety of thinkers, writers and experts will explore the most pressing issues of our time. For more posts from this partnership, click here. For more information on The Aspen Institute, click here.