March 20, 2017 by Julia
It’s hard to write about community service without boasting, or idealizing, or boring your audience. It’s such a relevant topic right now, though – with our government currently abandoning the sickest, poorest, most socially outcast individuals, with our desperate need for action as we try to do something that matches our beliefs, despite our lack of experience or knowledge. I feel it, and I believe most Americans feel it: what can I do to help? Or, in some cases, how can I make myself look good so the other half of America will realize I’m on the right side?
Of course, there are a million broken-down, less-than-pure human reasons for charity. But I’ve come to believe none of that matters – if it’s good, if it helps someone else, then it still counts. If we get hung up on “doing it for the right reasons” we may never do anything. Besides, if you are doing it for the “wrong” reasons, out of self-righteousness or guilt, or for public reward, you will be disappointed. Even doing it to heal my own soul has not worked out so well for me, because I’ve been coming at it from the wrong angle.
You hear a lot about how selfless giving will make you happier, but not so much about how it will also make you tired. The truth is that the experience of planning and/or following through on volunteer events costs me something. Work is work (is work). There is no getting around the work. When you give time, energy, and money those must come from somewhere – they don’t just materialize out of thin air in the name of charity.
We must take those valuable commodities out of ourselves, and we may be left running on fumes by the time we get back to our own concerns or needs. When we give selflessly, it drains us: Who knew?!? This has come as a surprise to me, as a born idealist. I had assumed the pride and joy I’d take in community service would generate a proportional amount of energy to do it. That’s the popular belief about charity or activism, (probably held by people who haven’t yet committed to it in any substantial way). I don’t say this to discourage charity or good works. I say it to remove the illusion that it’s this easy, life-giving force that will always fuel you and warm your heart.
Because it has drained me. It has stressed me out and triggered needless anxiety and painful empathy and frustration and disappointment in myself and in the world. I begin to doubt that my efforts, causing me so much anguish, make enough of a difference in the world to justify my pain. Often, the flaws of my work begin to stand out to me, or burnout sets in, or I am forced to take time away from family, or friends, or writing.
I have this problem with giving up, though. I don’t want to be one of those people – you know the ones. The ones who serve in a soup kitchen once and post all about it on social media and then never go back. I pride myself on my loyalty and tenacity; I see things through, whether it stopped being fun and convenient a long time ago, or not.
That pride has been my downfall more than once.
I can also be dangerously ascetic: a little too inspired by people doing the dirty work for nothing in return, a little too inclined toward the purely humble and caring. Those are wonderful traits, but the dark underbelly is total exhaustion, unrealistic expectations for oneself and others, and just a general burn out. I find myself in this place too often. For example, I was struck by a story in the book If God is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, about the beloved spiritual writer Henri Nouwen, who decided later in his career to serve in a Canadian monastery that cared for severely handicapped persons. The reporter who went to interview Nouwen there expected him to be engaged in deeply meaningful ministry; instead he found the man whistling in a bathroom while he scrubbed toilets.
Something about that stirs my soul. A humble, non-squeamish willingness to do the ugly, thankless work is one of the most beautiful things I can imagine. I like the people who get down on their hands and knees and SCRUB, rather than debating whose turn it is, or what brush should be used, or whether or not the soap was too expensive. Sometimes I just want the talking to stop, and the action to start. Someone has to clean the filthy floor, why not me?
But the burn out, folks, the burn out. The burn out is real; I’ve been there. Purity of intention will not save you. Also: self-righteous pride is overrated. It won’t keep you warm at night, or do karaoke with you, or be dumb and giggly with you. You need other people for that, and self-righteous pride keeps other people at a distance.
Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I must serve, somehow, without monetary gain or public recognition in return, on a regular basis. I honor this impulse, and encourage it in others. I just haven’t figured out how to sustain it without inordinate suffering, or giving up and moving on to something else. Most of my thoughts lead me to one central question: am I doing generosity right, if I am suffering?
Today, my answer is yes – but don’t suffer more than you can handle.
I have learned that any good habits I really care about must be sustainable for a lifetime. There must be something more to it that gives me meaning and joy beyond the outward justification for my existence. I will never be a competitive sports person; but I love the quiet, solitary challenge of yoga, and it’s so accessible. I do it at home for half an hour. There are no obstacles to overcome beforehand, like reluctance to go out and drive, or see other people and be presentable. I can be a friggin’ mess at home and do my yoga. That works for me. And my motivation is merely to feel good, to not have aches and pains, to feel more comfortable in my own skin, to reduce stress and be strong. That works for me better than wanting to look hot in yoga pants. (No judgment if that is your best motivation.)
My point is, we must figure out how to make the right choices work – in our real lives, with our real personalities.
I’ve finally, finally grown tired of making excuses for who I am in this world. I’ve been trying to justify myself since I was a kid, to prove that I deserve good things, or that I have earned the right to feel bad even if it looks on the outside like I shouldn’t be complaining. I am realizing that I spend a lot of my time earning whatever I feel, or whoever I am – I’m always scrambling for a good reason for my depression, or for people to know that I work really hard even though I’m a stay at home mom whose kids are now in school. It’s such a waste of time, really – if I am always apologizing for myself, then you’ll feel like you have to, too, and then we’ll genuflect ourselves back into our separate corners, instead of encouraging each other forward.
God put me here with certain gifts and weaknesses and idiosyncrasies, and so far, the only really good things I’ve done are so intertwined with who I am, that I am tired of apologizing for all of my good, bad, and ugly. The same goes for the circumstances I was born into. I didn’t earn my spot as a middle-class white American woman, and there’s no point in trying to either flog myself over the atrocities committed by my ancestors, or congratulating myself for my luck in being born white in a developed country. There IS a point in squarely, fearlessly facing the reality of my identity and my life and the state of the world. When I read literature on Black History, written by African-Americans, I can be filled with remorse for what our country has done, without making it all about me and my personal shame. That anger and remorse is useful; the toxic, paralyzing shame, not so much. When I face reality, and forget about justifying myself for a second, I can’t help but want to fight the systemic bigotry and corruption and greed that supports this world’s despair and evil. I don’t do this because I am special. I can do this because I am looking at the facts, and it is the natural thing to do if you are of sound mind and can face facts. If a child is starving on your doorstep, the only way you can tolerate that is by looking the other way. Look that child in the face, and trust your instincts.
Reality humbles us enough to stop judging others. Reality reminds us we didn’t earn our birthrights, for better or for worse. Reality reminds us we have it so good, compared to so many others, and yet we can still suffer in our comfortable lives. That’s been my hardest lesson for the past year or two. I’ve hated myself for the unexplained periods of unhappiness. Few things hit me harder than someone saying I don’t have the right to feel bad, or that I have too much good in my life to ever complain – because up until very recently, I would’ve agreed, and gone on feeling shamefully bad about how bad I felt. Reality reminds me, specifically, that even if I don’t deserve compassion for my depression in the middle of this nearly perfect life, I need it. I need it so badly. It’s the only thing that helps me to feel better.
So, who am I to judge if someone like Paris Hilton needs compassion, too? I can’t. Not anymore. Wealth, privilege, fame, power, even comfort – these things cannot save us from the darkest crevices of our own hearts. Only fierce, non-judgmental love can. And who are we to deny love from any of our fellow humans? Are we so much better than any of them? No. We are not. There is no hierarchy when it comes to the value of people.
This is where my impulse toward community service comes from. I keep hoping, though, that maybe I can find something that fuels me a little more, and drains me a little less, so that I can do it forever.
In the book I mentioned before, If God is Love, this passage gives me hope: “In his book Beyond Words, Frederick Buechner writes, “The kind of work God usually calls you to do is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done.” Much of the unhappiness we experience at work is because we’re not doing what fills us with joy and the world with goodness.”
Isn’t that a wonderful idea? Writing is my thing. I love it, I need it, I can do it, I can do my best to heal wounds in myself and others with this skill and passion. What else is there to say? I know what that feels like, and I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t need to be. Writing is not something you can sustain unless you truly love it – Lord knows it doesn’t often pay in any other way, but in the doing of it, and in the human connection and compassion it can open up.
If I want to sustain selfless work in trying to make the world a better place, I need to do a better job of working with my actual self. My suffering hasn’t been pointless, as I try to serve others, I know that. Sometimes we must make ourselves miserable trying out different things in a process of elimination: I’ve been figuring out what I’m not meant to do. I’ve been learning what kind of rewards aren’t enough for me, and which ones I most cherish.
And the good still counts, as I work through this process. Lunches must be served in the homeless shelter, children must be taught and engaged and cared for. You can’t go wrong, in helping with the necessary things. And I do believe that there will always be an element of suffering, in this selfless work. Love that has been suffered over is more meaningful to us, for some reason. We want so badly to be worth the work. We must be pretty awesome if someone will put themselves through pain for our sake. The best gifts are the ones that didn’t come easy to the giver; we cherish knowing that they made it, or hunted through jungles of disgruntled holiday shoppers to find it. Love is made complete when we work for each other, and feel each other’s pain.
I don’t want to get all religious on you, but I’m about to mention Jesus. Don’t freak out and then tune out this paragraph. This is not a plug; evangelizing is not my thing. I only want to share my experience, and respect yours, which I understand may be very different than my own – but no less valuable. Few things bring me as much joy as clearing new space with friends so that we can all breathe a little easier, be a little more truly ourselves. I am showing my Christianity because it is part of me. So, because of the Biblical stories I grew up with, which have begun to fascinate me again as an adult (Crazy, right?! I know. I’m surprised, too.) …I can’t help but be reminded, as I read and write all these things about love and the world, of how Jesus let himself be tortured and killed so we could begin to understand the depth of his love for humanity. I think now that he didn’t have to do that to save us; he will save us all, in one mysterious way or another, if he is truly Love.
I believe now he only suffered to demonstrate the depth of his love, and to feel our pain – suffering is part of what makes love real. There is a point to suffering. I have to believe it is this. Our stories tell us this, our lives tell us this. To me, that is more powerful than if Jesus died on the cross to save humanity. Heck, I’d die on a cross to save humanity, if it came down to it, and that’s just because I’m a decent person. Most decent people would, divine or not. But I think…I think Jesus did it to try to get through to us about what real love looks like, and to fully experience that love for himself. That’s just me. Call me crazy, and people on both sides do, and I no longer care. The story of suffering for love is powerful no matter what we believe.
And there is room in love for all different kinds of beliefs or non-beliefs. My adult interpretation of the Christian traditions I was raised on – so, so different from the way I used to think – is one that works in my heart, like a perfectly fitting key, opening it up. I hope you can find something that opens your heart up to love and goodness. It doesn’t have to be religion. In fact, I tend to respect the ethics of atheists more than religious people, because in my adult experience they are more likely to face reality with their whole brains and all their instincts, and therefore are better equipped to recognize what love, freedom and respect for all people really looks like.
We know what love looks like. We all do. Don’t pretend you don’t.
There must be something about love and life that requires suffering and heroism and courage for our experience to be complete. That must be why the best stories are the most dramatic, and we’ve been telling them over, and over again, since the dawn of time. We are drawn to them, more than we’re drawn to stories with no conflict, or stories of only perfect peace and comfort, as much as we say we want those things. Part of the beauty of love is the fight against all the things that aren’t love. I am willing to suffer for that, but not too much at once, because I’ve got to keep going for a lifetime.