I suppose given the season this piece would seem like a natural extension of the joy and giving so often associated with Christmas but there is actually more to it. Although I had to retire before I really came to understand the value and delight in volunteering I feel very lucky I was finally able to discover what has now become an integral part of my life. So when I read a marvelous piece by another blogger (Athabascan Woman Blog) I follow on WordPress centered on the topic of recognizing just how much we truly have and enjoy the sentiment struck a chord within me. And, in so doing, formed the basis for this piece which is really about the importance of helping others regardless of the time of year.
As I look back upon my life I recognize that as a child I was far too caught up in myself to even consider assisting others although I could be at least charitable to my family and friends. Through my teens and early twenties I was busy looking into myself trying to decipher who I really was and why I did, or didn’t do, so many things. Once I entered the working world my time was slowly but continually eroded by the increasingly more demanding positions as well as my continued need to look within myself. Yet in many ways I remained self-absorbed because I was fixated on trying to start and develop a long term relationship with members of the opposite sex. Sadly this never worked well for me and now that I have the ‘lens of time’ with which to look back upon those decades I understand that my consistent failures were at least as much my fault as my partner’s and probably even more so.
When a shift in marketplace employment needs coupled with my demographics (single, white, 50+ year old male) forced me out of the workplace far sooner than I intended I was left with lots of time to contemplate my past and while some of this was helpful often it devolved into ‘self-flagellation’ sessions with very limited value and generally not at all productive. But this same mix of events also left me time to care for my aging parents and to even become a care-taker for the family’s home while my mother spent her final few years in an assisted living facility. Although I didn’t recognize it at the time Mom was setting the stage for her most wonderful gift to me – the opportunity to experience volunteering. It seemed natural I should volunteer at the facility in which she lived as this gave me a chance to be around her more often; however, it also opened my eyes to the ‘relativistic’ nature of our own perceptions regarding what we have versus what we perceive others enjoy. And herein started my own voyage of discovery regarding the act of volunteering and the motivations behind my need to do so.
Initially I felt the volunteering was something that helped out Mom as well as the staff at the assisted living facility while giving me a chance to work with a variety of younger mainly women. But providing any sort of care to elderly folk, and particularly to elderly dementia victims, requires one be very observant and empathetic. As I increased my volunteering time I began to really get to know many of the residents; with time I stopped seeing them as ‘poor victims’ of a wicked disease and began to recognize them as people with often long and varied histories. Because of the nature of dementia in general and Alzheimer’s in particular one can never really escape the understanding these souls are nearing the end of their lives and doing so trapped by a wicked disease that strips them of their dignity, their memories and eventually their lives. But I also came to recognize most had long and interesting lives which, sadly, were coming to an end under rather unpleasant conditions. Many had been kind and generous people so to be able to offer them even just a modicum of assistance and care in their final years just ‘felt’ right. And the more I could positively impact the better I felt!
In college I remember learning there was no such thing as an ‘open ended system’; that the nature of the Universe was to tend towards disorder and eventual chaos and there were definite limits on energies and dimensions which would not allow for a truly open ended and hence ‘never ending’ system. The classic example of the futility of looking for such systems was man’s quest for the perpetual motion machine. This made sense at the time and I never really had reason to question this premise. Yet 35 years later I was wondering if maybe I hadn’t found an open ended system in volunteering..?!? Without question the more time I spent volunteering the better I felt and the more ‘good’ I seemed to perpetuate. I still marvel that when I volunteer folks are always thanking me for my time and effort when I feel I should be thanking them for the opportunity simply because it makes me feel so wonderful and, indeed, ‘complete’. Regardless of what, or how much, I did I always came away feeling I’d taken in so much more than I’d given out. And this feeling fed my urge to volunteer more time and effort; in effect that mythical open ended system.
With such positive forces driving me on I began to wonder at how this could be and perhaps more importantly ‘why’ this could exist. I believe most human beings are inherently ‘good’ and will always gravitate towards being helpful and caring. Of course there are many exceptions but some can be ruled out simply because they have organic or psychological damage while others are the victims of conditioning be it through upbringing, religions, environments or similar. In reviewing my own situation I needed almost 60 years to finally try volunteering even though I had received lots of encouragement regarding the practice during my earlier years. But what was it that made assisting others feel so very good? It occurred to me that in general I favored assisting others whom I viewed as either needing my assistance or those I felt had so much less than me. This made sense and I certainly felt there were so very many people falling into these categories. I came to recognize I had lived a very full and ‘easy’ life; these revelations almost forced me into wanting to give a little something back to those who I deemed were in need of what assistance and care I could provide.
And the more I did in terms of giving and assisting the more I recognized just how lucky I’d been which in turn drove the urge to help even more. I came to understand that sometimes I could assist by just giving someone a smile or holding a door open or wishing a stranger a good week; this, in turn, showed me it is not the perceived size or value of what one offers as assistance but rather the act of offering it in the first place that really matters. In reviewing what I’ve tried to do for others across the past eight or so years I’ve come to understand the more I offer the more I realize I have to offer. Another example of an open ended system in action! But I also noticed the more I give the more I have to give and this is rooted in a shift of one’s perceptions regarding themselves. I’ve become a so much more positive person thanks to my volunteering and as I’ve become so I learned what I believe is possibly one of the five most important concepts we humans can embrace: ‘attitude is everything’! Nurturing and developing a positive outlook on life can and does affect all aspects of our lives and does so in a most decisive and unequivocal manner. I still marvel at the power and far reaching consequences of truly accepting the immutability of such an apparently simple phrase!
So as I sit here in my semi-rural Alaskan home office living a lifestyle still new but also very dear to my heart in a place I’d only dreamt of living a few years previously I truly understand just how lucky I have been and how much I now have to share. Volunteering is a great means to ‘pay it forward’ and I’ve had wonderful opportunities at Talkeetna’s KTNA and at the Upper Susitna Food Pantry. Without question I hope to indulge myself in even more such opportunities and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit much of my motivation stems from the peace, pleasure and serenity I reap from such actions. At this point I no longer question the how or why of such situations; I just ‘go with the flow’ and reap the benefits knowing in my own small way I can make a positive difference in other people’s lives.
Oh, Bill, you have truly touched a chord with me (sorry to mix metaphors!). This is exactly how I feel about my prison ministry volunteering. The women I work with thank us for coming to visit with them, but in reality, I always walk away richer for the experience. Merry Christmas to you!
Thanks so much for reading my blog and especially for the kind words, Cindy! I never cease to be amazed at the power and wonder of volunteering; I only wish I had more time. When others thank me for my time and efforts I often feel almost ‘unworthy’ mostly because I get so very much out of the small amount I put into it. Although I never volunteered until I was 56 years of age it has become the lynch pin of my existence and I wouldn’t have it any other way!! My desire to volunteer has allowed me to really settle into my new home (just outside Talkeetna, Alaska) and finally begin putting down roots and developing a social network. I cannot imagine how I would’ve done this without volunteering especially as I knew no one in this area and only two people in the state. I would imagine your volunteer ministering is extremely challenging at times but then the more challenging the more benefits one reaps. Thank you so much for your wonderful service and have the very Merriest of Christmases and a wonderful New Year!