Better world, or waste of time?

I volunteer but don't enjoy it

By Cary Tennis
Published July 1, 2009 10:21AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I need some perspective or a new way to think about something.

I have always been interested in what the future might hold for our society. I've been watching events unfold with nervousness, but also with interest as to what is going to come next and be built on the chaos of today. The main reason for my interest is that I've never really been able to find my "niche" in life, and I keep hoping that with all the changes, I will find my purpose for living. I manage to live day-to-day just fine, but there's a hollowness and the belief that things could be a little bit truer than they are now. That part keeps me feeling a bit isolated. I don't expect or even want things to be perfect (I like the variety), but it seems like things could stand to be more authentic nonetheless. It seems like the things we focus on are only 20 percent effective, and there are other things that would be more effective, but those solutions get ignored.

One of the ways I deal with the hollowness is to volunteer, because being a part of something larger than myself and being involved in transformational activities is one thing that helps to make me feel life is worth living (I'm not actively suicidal). It's clear to me that there is a groundswell happening in response to the troubles of our times. I can see the seeds of things happening, and I want to be a part of that. Here's the problem: Every time I take a step toward groups that are working on these things, I have some kind of blockage going on. It is a mixture of feeling inadequate, but also disappointed. Inadequate because I'm not willing to shove aside my vulnerability and common ground with the "enemy," I'm somehow not sharp or savvy or hip enough, and disappointed because so much of it seems less about building something new for everyone, and more about building a shrine to individual egos (or rebelling against "the parents," whoever they are).

Now, I've volunteered with enough groups to know that people are people, wherever you go (including me). But I'm starting to wonder if I'm either projecting all of this (it's really me, and I'm just preemptively rejecting people), or if really there is not much hope because the new is just a rehashing of the same old thinking, the same old polarity looking for something to push against (I'm being a sap).

I don't know why this anguishes me. It's not like I don't have other things to do. But it does.

Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don't

Dear Damned If I Do,

You know, true humility in service is rare. It is hard. When we work in a group we want emotional reward. We want power and recognition. Or we want the satisfaction of knowing that our group is the best group, on the right track, blessed with the correct analysis of the problem.

It is hard to remain in a spirit of service. Somebody had to take Dr. King's garbage out. Who was that going to be? If you're a genius does that mean you don't have to take the garbage out?

Activist Tim Wise in a recent Sun Magazine interview talks about a white antiracism group in Seattle that asked activists of color how they could aid in the struggle without being paternalistic. "The activists of color said they needed them to provide child care and cook meals and make phone calls, but they didn't need whites at their meeting," says Wise. "The white activists were taken aback, but they realized that being an ally sometimes means freeing other people up to do what they need to do."

You may believe that the important thing is to work toward a vision of the future. That may be true. You may feel, in a high-minded way, that any incidental emotions you have on the way are not important. And if they did not affect you, perhaps they would not be important. But they are affecting how you feel about what you are doing. And I think they probably lie underneath some of the statements you make.

OK. This is what really needs to be said:

My guess is that in your volunteer work you are having certain feelings about certain people but you are not completely conscious of these feelings, nor do you accord them much value. They may be fleeting. They may be feelings you think are not worthy of your notice. Yet later, after you have had these feelings, you feel vaguely disinclined to continue working in this or that volunteer group, or you feel vaguely uncertain about the value of your activism and doubtful about your own usefulness and purpose.

If you are highly idealistic, you may feel that it is self-indulgent or sort of dumb to give credence to these fleeting feelings of resentment, dislike and awkwardness. Yet while we all have high ideals, we might call this "the ground game." The ground game is the messy, day-to-day reality of working toward a lofty purpose. In "the ground game," people shout at each other and vie for supremacy; they confuse ideals with the desire for power. They annoy each other and fail to embody the high ideals of their cause. Sometimes good things come out of such messy work. Sometimes not.

No matter how lofty our ideals, we are still just little humans pawing through the day, and our day-to-day lives contain a myriad of emotions and interactions, some of which are pleasant and make sense and others of which are annoying and weird and make no sense at all. It is sometimes as though we were walking through a dream; we are in a perfectly good mood and then someone says something to us and we're back in the third grade, slinking to the back of class or acting up. The trick in getting through the day is to be aware of all these things, and contain them, let them happen and know that they are simply phenomena. That is, the struggle is not to generalize from experience but more to do the opposite: to remain in the particular, or, if you will, "in the now." So if you are in a group and you feel suddenly uncomfortable and want to leave, perhaps you ask yourself, what just happened? Maybe you notice that you felt slighted by someone. What just happened? Was I attracted to that person? Did I want a certain kind of response and fail to get it? Is there something about this person's way of standing that reminds me of someone I dislike? Do I have some prejudice against people who use certain words in certain ways? Does this person remind me of someone in high school who was rude to me once? What is going on?

We find that our large ideas are fine but they are not what's going on. Often, what's going on is simpler and more human: We want attention, we want to be liked, we want respect, we want to be heard, we want their ideas to be the same as ours, we want a vision of the future to be enunciated in a way that pleases us.

Let me try to put it another way, and then I will stop and let you get back to what you are doing. We exist as a flow of consciousness. It is like we are under the sea and things are floating by. The things that float by are phenomena. We respond to phenomena. We exist in time. If you sit and breathe in and out for a few minutes you will notice that the only thing really going on is the voices in the room, the flow of people in and out of the café, the traffic noise, the sound of the music on the stereo, the feel of your shoulders, some itch on your foot, the flow of air in and out your nose, the coolness of the air on your arms, the satisfaction of swallowing, the quality of light on the screen, the feel of your sitbones on the hard wood bench in the café. All these things are going on. But only when we stop do we recognize them.

It's the same way in a group. It may seem a blur at first, but if we slow down, we realize we are having discrete, identifiable reactions to things. We were hoping the group would do this or do that and that it didn't and that we feel disappointment. We want the group to reflect certain dreams of ours and if it does we are happy and if it does not we feel a sense of loss. We hope things will be a certain way. When they are not, we feel disappointed. It's just human.

So we have to manage our feelings. We have to say to ourselves, well, in this moment, I am not getting what I want, but I am here to accomplish something so I will stay and keep working on it. Or we decide that the group is not going where we want to go, so we might change our minds about working with that group.

Some work is behind the scenes and some work shows immediate results. You clean up the beach; it was trashy, now it's clean. That's nice. You help someone buy groceries, then that person has a full refrigerator. That's a good result. As you move farther from direct action, the results of your actions are less tangible. You may be volunteering for people you don't know, mailing letters written by people you don't know to recipients you don't know. The letters may be asking them to contribute money to other people you don't know, so that those other people can hire people you don't know to carry out some campaign of persuasion to get even more people you don't know to change their minds about certain laws or candidates. These laws, however well-intended, will no doubt have certain unintended consequences; likewise these candidates, laudable though they may be, will sometimes behave contrary to expectations. You've never met them and even if you had you wouldn't know for sure what they would do. The farther you get from direct action, the less predictable and satisfying are the results of your actions.

So, evaluating your volunteer work in light of that measuring stick may be helpful: How much real, tangible satisfaction can you get out of the work? Does it please you? How do you feel afterward?

It helps to know what your needs are. Do you have a need to exercise power and influence? If so, being in certain groups will be extremely frustrating. Do you have a need simply to be with other people in a collective endeavor? Do you need to work in a group whose goals are clearly defined? Do you need to see the tangible results of your work? Can you work for long-term goals or do you need short-term results? These are all questions that you can answer. And we will notice that when you are getting what you need out of a group you feel positive, and when you are not, then you feel disappointment, anger, hurt, sadness, fear. Those emotions come from your direct experience of other people; they may have little to do with the group's mission or its vision.

So it goes.

That is all I have to say about this today. I've written too much already. I really should be more concise.

Now I have to read my e-mail and send some Tweekus.

Summer Reading! Need something for the lake house?

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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