Why I Volunteer My Time
June 11, 2012
I was late for a shift at the homeless shelter and decided upon a taxi. The new immigrant taxi driver was genuinely perplexed why anyone would give up his leisure time for free? I pointed out to him that millions of people around the world do exactly that because it is rewarding in other ways. Even as I said that I was aware that during the thousands of hours I have given in the service of others, not all of the work has been rewarding. Over time, however, I have worked out a few things about effective and satisfying volunteer work.
Be Selfless: The volunteer work I did in my youth was motivated by loneliness. Not an inconsequential motive, loneliness is the malady of our times. I had hoped that by giving my time to causes I would meet a better class of persons, perhaps strike up friendships that spilled over socially. I discovered that, just as in paid work, here too people move about in cliques. Judgments are made based upon age, race, gender etc. People seek out tribes. Now I no longer have expectations for myself when I decide upon volunteer work. I let the work itself be the criteria.
Repayment of debt: In my youth I abandoned some work because I felt my contribution was not appreciated. But now I do not expect gratitude, and I am no longer disappointed. I see volunteer work as a repayment of a debt to society for taking care of me all these years. Hundreds of anonymous strangers contributed to my safety and well being, from policemen to taxpayers. Now I am clear in my understanding that whatever I undertake is for my own growth only, and appreciation is not required or expected.
Tool for Learning: New immigrants and students often complain about being rejected by employers because of a lack of experience. Volunteer work can give that experience or perhaps a chance to acquire new skills. Granted these are not selfless motives but they are a reason to try volunteer work. I learned to write because of volunteer work, and now, through the literary magazine Descant, I have acquired a level of literary expertise. While this may not land me jobs or riches, I feel learning and growing are important in life. Cognitive dysfunction associated with aging can be curbed by cultivating intelligent new skills. I use my mental faculties to further grow spiritually. My volunteer work at Descant is a tool in this important growth.
Compassion muscle workout: Particularly at the homeless shelter, I find what I do there is a sort of gym for building up my compassion muscle. I stand at a window and give out a bag lunch and a drink to the homeless and the poor. The food is donated by someone else and the staff or other volunteers actually make the sandwiches. The only thing I can contribute in the act of distributing this food is a smile, eye-contact, and a pleasant word. These are things of which the homeless are particularly deprived. Too often we want them to be invisible. We walk past on street corners ignoring their request for coins. I have discovered that the skills I have developed in respectful compassion, are spilling over into my whole life. I am kinder to the people in my life. I forgive more freely. I am less inclined to judge. Everyone is in need of a smile, eye-contact, a friendly word.
Feel thankful for what you have. One of the worst disabilities in life is self-pity. It can make you needy, selfish, entitled. The cure is easy. Find people who are worse off than you and spend time helping them. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, you begin to put your own problems into proper perspective. You appreciate the strengths in your life. This happens naturally, without any effort.
Be fearless: I used to dread the prospect of growing old. I imagined a lonely existence where my body was falling apart along with my mind. By volunteering with geriatrics, I have discovered that some old people retain their alertness and actually grow in their wisdom, despite an ailing body. Being alone does not have to mean being helpless or indeed even lonely. Some old people have rich spiritual lives, they beam with joy through their eyes and speech. All that is a reward of work they put in their youth. Bhagwad Geeta is correct in saying that no spiritual work is ever wasted. It accumulates. I can now envision getting old but with a confidence of greater peace of mind. Most people in the last stages of their lives are not afraid of dying. They welcome the rest while acknowledging the full, rich life they have experienced. This is a lot to learn from donating an hour a week.
I am puzzled why I ever expected gratitude for my time when I was young. Now I am grateful to the people whom I help for what they do for me.