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:


Idealism and Expectations: The Pragmatic Volunteer

canstockphoto5319068Civic duty and volunteerism were concepts I embraced growing up. I sang at nursing homes when I was little, picked up litter, “adopted” grandparents in hospice care and collected canned goods. I was a Girl Scout, a Pathfinder, an earner of praise for being so good and so earnest. When I was 12, I even had tea with the state governor’s wife because of my do-gooding ways.

Lest you nominate me for sainthood, I lived a secret life inside. The people I helped weren’t always nice or clean or even grateful. I didn’t seem to be changing the world in the ways I had imagined. In my mind, I was a rescuer, a saver, a changer. I was able to raise my sense of personal value this way. It was all about me and when it didn’t proceed in the grandiose way I had envisioned, I became a little bitter.

The irony in failing to comprehend why people weren’t grateful was that I had been the recipient of charity as a child and I hated it. I hated being so poor that we couldn’t pay for food. I hated it that the girls at school would make fun of my weird hand-me-down shoes. I hated the looks of pity when we had to ask for a place to stay because of an alcoholic rage at home. I was afraid we’d be found out during those times when we didn’t have water or electricity or a flush toilet.

Many years ago, I helped during the holidays at a local shelter for abused women and children. I embraced this wholeheartedly, filled with wondrous plans to make the shelter a warm and welcoming place. These were my people – these people were trying to escape a life I’d left behind as a child.

We cooked a holiday dinner and helped sort presents for the kids. I did some cleaning in the dilapidated kitchen. I overheard conversations. Six kids later and still engaged in a soap opera with him. Bent on getting her next fix. Insisting that she didn’t need to do no chores. Smoking with a kid on her hip. I was young and judgmental – these were not my people.

I didn’t last long there. I also did short stints at nursing homes, depressed by the death of every adopted resident, overwhelmed by institutional smells, trying to convince myself that what I was doing mattered, but feeling like it really didn’t.

So often I read about the amazingly difficult work people are doing under miserable conditions with challenging populations. Surely their idealism was shed after two weeks with no shower or shoveling gravelly hard ditches for drainage or when they were cursed at for limiting amounts of food distribution. Some of these volunteers will do this kind of work for their entire lives – in the trenches, with little external reward.

Oh, but self-righteous, poor me. I was the worst kind of volunteer. I had expectations that gratitude would be my reward. That I would be seen as someone of value and import because I was doing good.

Years later, I’ve been through all the permutations of volunteerism, arriving at a milquetoast, middle class version. Most recently, I took a leadership role in my daughter’s school parent teacher organization. It’s a large school with a majority reduced lunch population. Needs are high for supplies and programs and volunteers. I thought, until this week, that I’d put aside idealism and that wretched volunteer of my younger years.

I’ve written letters to protest a school program change, tried to recruit other volunteers, attempted to connect with other organization leaders, addressed a school gymnasium full of kids and teachers, and done fundraising. I felt strong and decisive and filled with self-righteous zeal (the kind that I generally mock). I spent most of the week outside of my comfort zone.

The response has been a lot of silence, some bureaucratic mumblings and tepid conciliation. I felt defeated and deflated and discouraged. I had expectations that I wasn’t acknowledging and so disappointment caught me off guard. I was that volunteer again – seething with anger, swearing that I’ll never volunteer to do this or that again.

My grownup self has tempered my reaction. There is satisfaction to be found in being the kind of the person I want to be – someone who is willing to jump in, have uncomfortable conversations, take risks and recognize that not everything is going to turn out rainbows and puppies. On occasion, I just have to deal with that other person – the one who wants fulfillment and reward and most definitely, tangible results.

I still believe with all my heart that an individual can make a difference. It would be arrogant to believe that I can change the plight of humans with my small actions. But with all the need in the world and the fortunate life I live now, it would be unforgivable if I didn’t even try.