Over the years, I’ve volunteered with different organizations, doing different things, for different reasons. I’ve filled bags with food, cleaned a beach, canvassed for politicians, sat with people in hospice, and translated Holocaust survivor testimonies. This week, I’ll start volunteering at a local public garden and continue helping to write fundraising materials for two organizations in Israel focused on coexistence. My retirement days are not just filled with reading and wandering.
You’ve likely heard the statement that the giver gets more than the receiver, but I will buck the trend and say that I don’t agree with it. It must be more of a balance. How can you say that my peace of mind for having done something good for two hours is the same as a parent receiving food for their hungry children, or a dying person having someone sit beside them for part of their endless day? If it were true, then I would need to feel guilty that part of the reason I do these acts is for me to meet people and be engaged. It’s not purely an altruistic move and I don’t want to feel bad about that.
My volunteering really started when I became an empty nester, since I had more time and less financial stress. It was a sign that I had transitioned from survival mode to fulfillment mode. It occurs to me now, though, that just when I no longer needed to focus on someone else, I chose to continue focusing on others, which, I also realize, is my way of taking care of what I need, both morally (Jewishly) and psychologically. It seems to be impossible for me to be in this world and not try to be a part of it, to help improve it, to ameliorate its pains in the ways that I am able, even while trying to make friends.
During my on-boarding interview at the garden, the interviewer asked me if I had volunteered anywhere else. I quickly mentioned a few places, but later in the interview and the day, I remembered other places. All of them had been for causes that are meaningful to me. But at most of the places, for various reasons, I hadn’t become engaged with the activity or the people with whom I worked. It seems that finding a good volunteer fit is like finding the right job or partner.
At an organization that helps abused women where I volunteered a few years ago, the woman who ran the volunteer training program had started out as a volunteer and was so dedicated that she ended up as a full-time employee. For me, it wasn’t the right fit and I only volunteered there the minimum required following the (excellent) training. At other places, I could just sign up for a few hours. In many places, there was either too little engagement or too many people coming in groups that resulted in my feeling left out. This shouldn’t be a concern and maybe it sounds selfish, and maybe it is, but I don’t want to feel bad about myself or uncomfortable when I’m trying to be of service to others. I have also realized that I would prefer to use my skills, which utilize my very being, then simply do a task. I haven’t ruled those out, but they would be more occasional than ongoing.
While some of these volunteer adventures have been frustrating, I have remained persistent, knowing that I need them and knowing that when it is the right fit, I have felt whole—as a part of what is. As I sit here pushing this thought, wondering why this has been so important to me, Hillel’s statement of ancient wisdom comes to me:
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
And me as a human being—not the women who needs to understand everything—knows that the answer is simply that this is the way for me to be in the world, to share in the world. It is to know something intrinsically. It is to be.