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: