Mission Possible: Un-Volunteering

canstockphoto6447962It’s been some rough and tumble weeks for this introvert. In my second and last year presiding over a parent teacher organization, I’ve spoken to, shook hands with and done presentations for more people in the last 3 weeks than I have in the last 6 months. Summer haze gave way to nonstop activity within the first few weeks of the school year.

Give me a need, a project, an event. Within 15 minutes, I can give you a solution, a time frame, a list of supplies, 4-5 ideas, and details that hadn’t occurred to anyone. I can foresee what some of the obstacles might be and have already come up with workarounds. By the 30 minute mark, I will have made requisite calls, sent out emails and ordered whatever was needed.

When you get older, you can look back and see the patterns of your existence. The people, the jobs, the activities, the resolutions. When I notice them, my current life becomes laughably predictable and I begin to see that I have become a caricature of my younger self. A disembodied life made up of habits and duct tape.

I am gruff about my volunteerism. It’s a little bit of dishonesty that keeps me saying yes over and over again. I act like it’s uncharacteristic of me to help out…grumble, grumble. But I started young, with visits to nursing homes and hospices, food drives, animal welfare petitions. Much had to do with whatever organization I was involved with at the time – church, Girl Scouts, the Army, my daughter’s school.

Then there were years when I just made up shit to do. I went to local nursing homes and wrote out Christmas cards for residents. I volunteered to make a holiday dinner at a domestic violence shelter. I’ve walk-a-thoned and donated and fundraised. I’ve assisted athletes at the Special Olympics. I’m spending days at an elementary school. I’m sponsoring a kid in Ethiopia. Helping out here, there, everywhere…e-i-e-i-o.

It’s all good. Except when it’s not. Except when it’s pathological – a way of defending against the secret belief that I’m a horrible human, worthy only in what I do. I’ve met people on the other side of the fence – people who believe their mere existence is good enough, no matter what kind of people they are. I find them a tad repulsive, yet this is the message we’re supposed to give to our kids. You’re fine just as you are, human.

I don’t believe that mere existence is worthy of esteem, as flawed and pessimistic as that thinking might be. It’s a crowded world with a lot of suffering. If you’re going to take up space, do something helpful while you’re here. You know, tidy up a bit, lend a hand, try not to be a hog about resources. Ensure that your world view is not myopic. Primum non nocere and all that.

In conversations with volunteers, I am astonished at how many things they do. They’re volunteering at churches, schools, hospitals and booster clubs. What astonishes me is not that they volunteer, but how much of their lives they spend doing things for other people. The world needs them, but it comes at a cost. And maybe it’s worth it to them, maybe that’s their schtick.

I don’t know if it’s mine. I’d like to find out how horrible a human being I am when I say “no” to outside activities. Maybe I’ll get a book published. Maybe I’ll finally learn how to do Japanese sumi painting. Maybe I’ll go back to working on my taekwondo black belt. Maybe I’ll discover I’m more patient and kind with my own family when I stop saying yes to everything else.

I want to sign up for a life that is lived intentionally and while it’s not a zero sum game, sometimes it’s easier to start from scratch and make deliberate choices, instead of trying to control knee jerk habits.

There’s an old bit of Army tactical training that comes to mind. When hit by ground flares at night, you move away from the illuminated area, reorient yourself and continue your mission. It’s time for me to reorient myself to some free time and to stop doing this every time someone asks for help:


5 thoughts on “Mission Possible: Un-Volunteering

  1. Learning to say “no” isn’t easy, but it is necessary. I volunteer at a hospital once a week from 8 am to 6 pm. I love it. On occasion they may be short a volunteer on another day and if I can help out, I do. I suffer no guilt if I can’t. I also do pro bono writing work — for one not-for-profit a year. Sometimes it’s a website they need written. Usually it’s fundraising direct mail packages. Sometimes they just want to pick my brain. Having said that I have a former colleague/friend in New York who started a not-for-profit a few years ago, to stop abuse. I very rarely say “no” to him when he needs some writing done, even if I’m already doing pro bono for another organization. What he needs is never that onerous, nor does he ask that often. So unless I’m positively swamped with work, for him, my answer is always “yes”.


    1. I’ve just come to realize that “resentful volunteer” is an oxymoron that I’ve fomented myself. While I’ve gotten better at saying “no”, it’s very hard for me to be in a leadership role and to delegate properly, especially when things get ridiculously busy. I just need to stop for awhile and get my bearings. I’m hoping being more deliberate in my volunteering will mean that not only will I be happier, but I will bring more of that positivity to the task. These days I’m just struggling.


  2. I used to be on every committee where I was asked to serve, juggling this-that-and-t’other projects and pro bono bits, and it was great for a good long time. But nearly everybody hits a tipping point, an overload state, or burnout at one time or another. And that’s okay. I go gung-ho for whatever’s my Thing for a few years, and am glad to do it, and then there comes a time when I need to hit Refresh. Change projects or directions. Take a *break*. Let somebody else step up for a while.

    If I don’t, I start to find all of the do-goodery a pain in the ask! And there are definitely some things that, while I think them immensely valuable, I find myself eventually feeling have outgrown being all-volunteer and those who give them so much deserve the respect of recognition and/or pay that is never going to happen as long as I keep hanging around enabling the org to never change that give-it-to-me point of view. There’s no perfect or permanent balance, I suspect, but I have to just keep seeking my own, with periodic tweaks. I’ll bet you do, too. Cut yourself some slack. Your innate goodness isn’t dependent on your being a slave or a martyr.



    1. I have committed to no commitments for one year after this school year. I figure that’s enough time to do a re-set and see where I want to go from there. Now I’m focusing on delegating some of the tasks I’ve taken on, so that November can be dedicated to National Novel Writing Month and I can unload some of this resentfulness that is building up steam.

      And you’re right, there is no perfect or permanent balance (nicely phrased). I just need to pull myself out of automatic “yes” mode.


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