Volunteer voluntarily

I like to believe that I exist to do more than just to take up space and procreate. I believe that many of us have more to offer the world than our diplomas on our walls, and money in our bank accounts. I’m certainly no optimist, but I hope that my contribution to the world will leave it in a better place than it was when I first entered it.

Volunteering—something that my bleeding heart has a large soft spot for—is an activity that society looks upon with keen interest. Volunteering is something that is meant to humble and educate you, especially when volunteering with those who are ‘less fortunate’ than you.

But what is it about volunteering that leaves celebrities clambering to the nearest African orphanage and members of religious organizations dutifully serving the homeless at local soup kitchens every weekend?

In general, I don’t think it’s for the betterment of the affected communities. Not real, sustainable betterment at least. Volunteering can be an exploitive, almost voyeuristic activity, depending on the situation and the motivations behind the volunteer. I was volunteering earlier this week, and a couple of high-school boys had also signed up with me. Though the boys did their jobs, they goofed around, laughed behind the patrons’ backs, and didn’t appear to understand the importance of the work that they were doing.

When another volunteer chatted to them about why they were there—after they complained that their feet hurt from walking around too much—the boys informed us that they were only volunteering to fill their 40 hours of mandatory community service.

This mandatory ‘volunteering’ is apparently meant to teach teenagers some humility and perspective, but I saw little of that. Instead, I saw adolescents who were well aware of their class privilege, mocking the actions of those with none.

Volunteering can have a dark side, especially when dealing with differences in power dynamics. This is only one example and the typical immaturity of teenage boys is common knowledge, but it made me wonder why we volunteer.

The reality is hard to admit, but I would say it’s true for most. Volunteering feels good, it gives us a sense of purpose, and in many contexts it makes us feel better about our situations. When done in large groups with people from similar backgrounds, it appears to almost act as group therapy.

Yet, society needs volunteers as much as volunteers need the defined role that their commitment offers them. Volunteering is an essential activity, but stop blindly following others into it, if you are like many who believe that three hours spent dishing out soup to the hungry can change lives.

Before your good-Samaritan-self signs up for some more volunteer shifts, think about why you are doing it. Reflection can offer the world something.

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