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volunteerworkIt is not uncommon to hear a volunteer when asked why they give of their time this way reply, “I get far more from doing this than what I give to others.”

I can testify that that statement is true, but I began to wonder why, and that always is a dangerous thing, my mind at work!

Most of you are not aware, since I don’t speak of it often, but I had a rather ugly digestive disorder some years ago that lasted nearly four years.

Suffice it to say that once I got it properly diagnosed, a simple change in diet gave rather immediate results. However it took nearly two years before I was properly healed and back to pretty much normal. Now I can eat pretty much what I want, but on occasion I have to cut back on fruit. And I try to avoid most processed foods and bake my own. Other than that, I’m pretty much fine.

During that time, I did little since I didn’t feel good hardly ever. I became somewhat phobic about even leaving the house. The Contrarian has suffered too from a balance issue that, in tow with my malady kept up fairly hermits for a number of years. In this we were not unhappy for we have always found that we are each other’s best friend and company.

As we both improved, he more recently, I realized that I wanted to reconnect with my faith in a more communal way. And the rest, as they say, is history. You’ve heard and read of my journey from Catholicism to the Episcopal Church. I’m now engaged in a number of activities that are non-paid of course, but eat up  several hours of my time each week.

During my “hermit” time, I was very inward in my spiritual journey. I was self-absorbed some might say. I explored Eastern philosophies and what some would term “new age” thinking. Both, can be self-absorbing. Notice I said “can be,” not must be. And they are sometimes criticized for that reason. I flat out began to miss “community” and of course anyone who is churchy would tell you that faith is best in community.

My work now, involving a number of “ministries,” is very outward looking. Sure I gain some minor plus from working to reorganize our church library since I love to read the contents thereof. I gain something from helping to discern the topics to be discussed during the year in our adult formation committee, since again I love to discuss those subjects, and so forth. But I gain nothing tangible from serving at the food pantry. And I would never approach ministry as something for my personal pleasure or value. Being of service is to the greater good of the community, church or as broadly as you may wish to make it.

Yet, I gain everything. Those who volunteer know exactly what I mean. No money, no fame of course, and few would expect otherwise. But there is some sense of feeling “good” inside for the doing of this work. There is some emotional joy that is achieved, almost to the point of feeling guilty about feeling good.

And I began to wonder why this happens. Why do we humans do things for others with no apparent pay off for ourselves?

Certainly we know that there is a genetic imperative to procreate. We are motivated to produce children and thus insure the survival of the species. We don’t think about it, we just do it. Most of us at least. And, certainly when you see young people, preteen especially, who are engaged in environmental and other social issues, there is a payoff reasonably expected in one’s lifetime, though the child might not think about this particularly.  They are wont to describe their activity in terms of providing a better planet for themselves.

My question is what motivates us to do this work when we have nothing to gain literally. I’m speaking to those of us in our 50’s and 60’s and so forth who cannot reasonably live long enough to see an real change in the things we have grown to care about. What is there in the human psyche that engages us when we could more easily sit on the veranda and sip whiskey sours or the hip equivalent throughout the day?

I realized that there is some need in each of us to be “useful” to feel needed or worthwhile. At least it is present in most of us most of the time. Thus the retiree takes a job at Burger King, not for the money, but to stay “connected” somehow, to feel valuable in some way. I mean hanging out at the senior center or playing some golf or tennis at the club would equally suffice wouldn’t it?

It would suffice, if indeed there was not more to it than exercise and keeping “in the world.” And one cannot dismiss the fact that being “paid” denotes worth in this society, wherein volunteerism does not. So again, why the volunteerism?

In a word, what makes us altruistic? What makes us help others with no apparent benefit?

Tomorrow: Part II

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