This is a November 2010 revised version, posted on The Huffington Post, of the original article published in 1996.
During our increasingly stretched-out holiday season, it’s easy to feel a bit cynical about people who suddenly want to do some volunteering. The staff of service organizations often wince at the prospect of receiving more offers of help than they actually need. “Where were you the rest of the year?” they mutter silently.
To be fair, many people are not just a once- or twice-a-year volunteer. In fact, volunteering one’s time, service and expertise is on the rise among all age groups. For many, it’s an integral part of their lives, an expression of their core values. That’s raised a question in my mind: Does volunteering time and service impact the life of the volunteer? And if so, how?
In recent years, I’ve researched this a bit through seminars we’ve held at the Center for Progressive Development for volunteers interested in exploring how their volunteering affects their personal and professional lives.
We’ve found that volunteer activity often reshapes or redirects people’s values, perspectives and even their life goals in several ways. It can spur new growth and awareness, both spiritually and emotionally. Sometimes the changes are slight, but clear — like the person who committed herself to ongoing work with a mission that she had initially chosen at random, in response to her company’s suggestion to employees that they consider volunteer service.
In other cases, the impact of volunteer work is more dramatic: changing the company one works for, or, as one man did, changing his career and life direction altogether. The personal impact of volunteering can also trigger a decision to leave one’s relationship, after a “values gap” became so visible and sharpened that the relationship could no longer endure.
Of course, volunteering isn’t the only source of life changes like these. But people who reflect on the impact of their volunteering do find that their volunteer experience tends to initiate a reexamination of their lives. And that can lead to some unanticipated consequences. In that sense, it can be subversive — and that’s a good thing, in my view.
Many successful, career-oriented men and women openly acknowledge feelings of inner emptiness, a lack of meaning or real human connection in their lives. Those who volunteer sometimes discover that their volunteer work is the only kind of engagement in their lives that feels meaningful to them — often greater than their career, sometimes more so than their intimate relationships. I’ve heard similar observations from my psychotherapy patients, as well, over the years. That’s a disruptive experience, hard to ignore. But it opens the door to more self-directed growth, regarding your values and life purpose, to becoming a more fully-developed adult.
I think that occurs because volunteering often trigger a new awakening — for example, of a yearning for positive, authentic connections in your life; or of the reality that beneath surface differences, we’re all one; all organs of the same body, so to speak. Interestingly, studies of death camp survivors during the Holocaust have found that most of those who survived attempted to help others in the camps survive, not just themselves.
The reality that all lives are interconnected and interdependent has become ever-more apparent to most people, now, dealing with our post 9/11, post-economic-meltdown world, where a small change anywhere can affect your personal security and well-being. Volunteering often strengthens your fundamental connection with other lives. It broadens your perspective about your own life dilemmas or disappointments, when you encounter others who have it worse off than yourself.
Such consciousness also rebounds to you in the form of more flexibility in the face of changing circumstances. Keep in mind that psychological health and resilience include the capacity for positive engagement and connection with the diverse human community, and for effective life management within this unpredictable, uncertain world.
Moreover, consider this: volunteerism is really just a more organized form of something all of us do all the time, every day. You’re always giving of yourself — the human capacity for empathy — in some way, in some relationship, all the time — as parent, partner, worker, or citizen of the planet. In that sense you’re always “volunteering,” though you may not call it that when it feels like a “natural” function.
An example of the latter perspective is the Buddhist view of compassionate action, which is understood as a natural expression of connection. It’s like when you cut your finger, you don’t deliberate about whether to bandage it or dither over the cost-benefit equation of doing so. You know your finger is part of you, so you just do it.
When you volunteer, you’re rectifying some of the damage from the disconnection and self-interest that pervades our culture today, that fuels so much of the intolerance and fear rising in our tumultuous, unstable world. Whatever you “practice” in daily life always becomes stronger — for better or for worse. Through service to others, you’re defining and “practicing” the kind of person you want to be. And that’s the one choice you always have in life — in each moment, in each decision, in every new encounter.
Some Suggestions For Volunteers:
Many organizations are open to volunteers — at any time of the year. Here are two national groups that provide links to volunteer opportunities in your local area: