The gorgeous grins on those middle school kids’ faces last Saturday on the Today show did the trick—pushed that devil off my other shoulder. The kids weren’t mugging for the camera or being sentimental. They were having a good time scrubbing the primary colored walls of their school, picking up trash, and packaging food for people down on their luck. They were volunteering—in response to Obama’s call—doing for others, giving of themselves, and feeling good about it. I felt myself wanting to go back.
These last few months I’ve been fighting myself: Should I go back to volunteering? I miss it. Am I refreshed enough? It’s the right thing to do. Is my attitude right yet? The work needs to get done. What’s my motive for going back?
Even though the work needs to get done, my motive matters to me.
I was a model volunteer. Over decades of volunteering, even as I worked full time and raised two kids, you could count on me to volunteer. I actively volunteered for everything—from cemetery weeding and synagogue lawn mowing to fundraising and newsletter writing. I served as secretary, committee chair, scout leader, and group organizer. I worked for nonprofits, charities, schools, and religious organizations; for diabetes, heart disease, leukemia, and Alzheimer’s. Exhausted, often disappointed, I couldn’t stop; I was a martyr volunteer.
I wasn’t having fun anymore. And, I was way past caring to make a difference. Why was my need to volunteer so desperate? One Sunday afternoon, as I frantically chased around Columbia looking to buy 25 backpacks for a Silver Spring middle school, the answer struck me like a fist in the solar plexus: I did volunteer work to earn my life on the planet and a seat in a heaven that I wasn’t sure I even believed in.
Whoa. That motive scared me. It wasn’t even realistic. Right after I delivered the backpacks, I started a break from volunteering, along with a little therapy.
Three plus years later, I feel better about my place in the world. The kids are grown, and my long work commute allows me time to think. I’m choosing my activities with affection, not desperation or need, and making sure they fit into my schedule; this would include any volunteering. My motives for volunteering have changed: Now, I want to volunteer because I want to help out people who aren’t as strong as I am right now and because I want to feel that sense of accomplishment and warmth of working with others that fueled my volunteer work when I was a kid.
Seeing those kids’ angelic grins on the Today show ended my late inner conflict. I am ready to go back. I’ll start small—maybe I’ll stuff envelopes for the synagogue or cook a couple of casseroles for the Grassroots shelter.
See Obama’s call for volunteering: