Simple and enormous: The story of the volunteer

Saturday November 10, 2012

I have never been a stalwart volunteer. In high school, I worked at a soup kitchen serving spaghetti and garlic bread made from hot dog buns to a long line of very tired-looking people, then quit after a couple of meals.

I picked up roadside trash on a few Earth Days celebrations. I helped clean out cat cages once at a animal shelter, worked a face painting booth at an agricultural fair, handed out T-shirts at a fundraising event for my college. One time I donated bags of canned goods to a drop-in center and ended up scraping the car fender of a fellow who had come to the center to pick up food.

To my chagrin and shame, none of these volunteer efforts lasted more than a day, sometimes not even a half-hour. Occasionally I have been so paralyzed by who knows exactly what, fear or alienation or hyper self-consciousness or entitled boredom, that I didn't show up for a scheduled volunteer shift at all. (The no-show was just taking tickets at a folk festival, so it wasn't like I left small hungry children to shiver in icy mud puddles, but still, the failed civic principle remains.)

Lately I've been thinking a lot about people who volunteer, people who cheerfully and consistently give their time and energy to some great or quiet cause. It seems to be a calling for them. In volunteering, they appear to find affirmation of their deepest selves. It seems like they find joy.

The research about volunteering and generous behavior backs this observation up. People who make giving a regular part of their lives tend to live longer, be happier and less anxious, and forgive themselves more easily for their mistakes. Teenagers who help others are often more engaged, excited and hopeful than those who don't. (Read Stephen Post's "Why Good Things Happen to Good People" for a longer exploration of the power of giving.)

Volunteering and giving, then, are like free antidotes for the stress and struggles of being alive. People who help others, from comforting the sick to making sure the homebound have great books to read, are tapping into the serious medicine that comes from love.

Dedicated volunteers, I've found, also have near-universal antipathy toward publicity. Many people in our neck of the woods are humble and private and need some convincing that their life stories are in fact well worth the sharing and attention.

But those who do a lot in their communities insist the fiercest that other people do more important work than they do, and surely their stories wouldn't be interesting to hear. Often a volunteer will talk about himself only if the conversation is framed as a benefit to the organization or effort he supports.

The other day I met an elderly Windham County woman who serves her town in many ways. This is an extraordinary person, kind and busy and possessed of a vigorous and compassionate mind. I knew that her story would touch people's hearts, make them feel proud of our communities and our capacities as individuals caring for each other, and maybe even inspire future volunteers.

When she demurred a request for an interview, though, I understood. It was not in her nature to seek attention. She didn't need it for her work to be valuable.

I imagine all these people moving through the streets, through halls and homes, quietly doing simple and enormous things to ease suffering, to help people learn, to clean up dirty places and to make dull places beautiful.

I imagine them disappearing all at once, and the whole world lurching to a shocked stop. Who will plant the impatiens in the little traffic island where three streets meet? Who will sing to the dying? Who will make sure kids cross the street safely after school? Who will teach those same kids where to look for salamanders near the forest vernal pools?

Where do they find the courage to offer the world their hearts and hands? Is it easy? Does it feel natural? Did they learn it from their parents, or were they blessed with a mentor? How did they find the volunteering that fit what they had to give?

I ask because I do not know, and I want to. I want to tell these stories of volunteers so that I might learn from them, so that my son will see his mother doing her part to help the world turn a little more smoothly, with a little more grace.

I want him to grow up knowing and living the story of the volunteer.


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