I am not a selfless, tireless soul. Like other people, I like to chill. I go to the movies, buy things I don’t need sometimes, and nap when I can. I try hard to be a great partner and mother, and I’m generally happy. And yet, I am obsessed with mindfulness and the blissful peace it offers. Why do we crave this peace? What is it that we’re really missing in our lives, if our lives are generally good?
I formed my hypothesis on this shortly after I started volunteering at a local children’s program two years ago.
My desire to start volunteering began, as it does for many, as a nagging sensation. Surely there was something I could do to give my life more meaning, but where to start? The World of Things That Need Help feels so vast and complex. You can’t untangle the entire thing—there’s policy issues, rotten histories that are still seeping into the present, corruption, failure, greed, and sheer bad luck.
Then, I started mentoring a now-11-year-old girl for one hour every week. I was so afraid of breaking out of my comfort zone. I felt guilty about the things I had that she didn’t. Also, what does one talk about to a nine-year-old? Are kids still into the Jonas Brothers? (Answer: What’s a Jonas brother?) Are they tired of slime yet? (Answer: Definitely not.) Will they think I’m super old? (Answer: They literally laugh at my grey hairs.)
Not long after I started mentoring, I realized that my feelings—about the immense problems faced by the world, about how intimidated I was by volunteering—were secondary. What mattered was the person I wanted to help. And all she wanted to do was hang out, make pom-pom animals, and talk about life. I can do that. In fact, I really like to do that. Also, hit me up if you want a pom-pom kitty. I am now a master.
It’s no wonder that we have trouble “finding balance” when we’re so intimidated by the idea of stepping up and helping out. We’re focused so much on taking and not giving. Many of us get to watch horrifying news from the safety of our warm homes, using all sorts of expensive technology to communicate our outrage. Our seething and worrying just stokes the embers of each others’ seethe-worrying, and in the end, we only feel worse.
Volunteering can help your well-being—it might even help you find that sense of balance you crave. But to get there, you have to think about more than yourself.
If you live in the US, chances are you were contacted sometime in the last year by at least 100 friends who wanted you to come over and write postcards to a senator. At the policy level, for broad issues like immigration, women’s rights, or taxes, that’s important. But your local community is where those laws have a real impact.
There’s a syrupy story of a kid who’s on a beach covered in beached starfish. He throws them back into the ocean, one at a time. An onlooker questions his intentions, since he can’t save them all. The sage child (as they all are in these parables) says, “It matters to the ones I throw back.”
There is a 100% chance that your city, your neighborhood, or even your street, is full of families and individuals (or dogs and cats, if that’s more your thing) who are struggling with very real problems. The more you learn about them—both the problems and the people—the more you’ll feel in touch with your community, instead of drifting in a filter bubble. Engaging with them could make you a positive influence on a whole lot of other potential givers.
Don’t try to lead the charge
It’s a phenomenon many of my fellow Americans saw after the 2016 presidential election: those with pioneering spirits attempted to organize. Groups were springing up left and right, started by people who wanted to put the fire they felt burning in their hearts to good use.
They meant well, and a lot of them are still at it. But the enthusiasm of most of these groups (often literal Facebook groups with descriptions involving the sentence “It’s time to get active!”) fizzled out in a few months. I feel you, natural leaders. I’m one of you. Your heart’s in the right place. But I’m not convinced that deep down, you don’t have a tiny little image of yourself being profiled in some hip publication as a person who really made change. You’ll be sitting in a chair, bathed in natural light, looking magnanimous, telling your story of selfless charity.
There’s nothing wrong with that—entrepreneurs and visionaries are important. But the best way to contribute to your community is to fully accept that it’s not about you at all. Thousands of organizations have already done the hard work: coming up with strategies for raising money and awareness, and creating connection and change. They want you, they need you, they will put you to work. And they’ll do the hard stuff that you’re not ready to tackle yet.
Grab your first opportunity, and if it doesn’t work out, grab another
How does one even decide on a volunteering career? Do I work with kids? I like kids! But I like animals too! What about literacy? I care about all of those things! Should I make a Pinterest board about it? Is there a volunteering concierge that I can use to figure these things out for me?
I airheadedly asked this question once of a wise woman and legendary volunteer in my local community who serves on steering committees, runs programs, and does it all while living in public housing and raising three kids by herself. Her reply: “You just take the first thing that comes along.”
Don’t waste time trying to get things perfectly right. Turn the first opportunity you hear about into action. If it doesn’t work out, no hard feelings. Just take the next one. All of these trains lead to the same place: you giving back in a way that makes the most sense with your life—and therefore gets the most of your attention, and delivers the most impact.
It’s important for you to find something you love so that you can put your heart into it, but you should keep in mind what the wise woman also told me: While you’re hemming and hawing over what will be the perfect fit, and whether at-risk teens deserve more of your attention than a program that turns public places into vegetable gardens, these organizations and the people, animals, or places they help are losing your time. Don’t overthink it. Just try it out.
Set reasonable expectations
Start with one hour a week. If that seems like too much, try one hour every two weeks. If that seems like too much, I’d advise you to spend a few days counting how many hours of Netflix you watch. I did this, and it was far, far more than I’d estimated.
Everyone’s busy, everyone feels stretched too thin. Everyone’s also managing to cram a whole lot of TV shows into their schedule.
Once you’ve found something you like, the time will not only fly by, but it’ll seem less like a sacrifice and more like a weekly highlight. The volunteering I do ceases over summer break, and I can’t tell you one productive thing I do with that extra hour in my week. I’m almost certain I spend the entire 60 minutes sitting around and staring at my dog.
Or, get creative about finding time. Your employer might be cool about letting you leave a little early to put some community time in—they may even ask you how they can help.
Once you’ve got an hour a week down, you might find that it’s so worth it that you become what Pamela Hawley, founder and CEO of UniversalGiving, calls an “advanced volunteer“—someone who’s willing to donate an enormous amount of time and emotional effort. After several years of volunteering at my son’s school—from pitching in here and there, to joining a committee, to joining the board—I’m definitely at an advanced level. I’ve gotten to know how the school works and have helped them improve and grow. Sometimes it feels like I’m throwing whole wheelbarrows of stranded starfish back in an ocean sometimes.
As for my mentee, we’re happy where we are. Should she need my role in her life to expand, I’d be thrilled to comply, but for now, we’re committed to each other for one hour a week, and we’re OK with that. She would most likely point out that I’m just as likely to be the starfish, and she’d probably be right.
January is a great time to get into giving back, as the flood of holiday donations and corporate volunteering days slows to the thinnest of trickles. Keep your ears open, avoid the trap of too much research, ask a friend who seems like they’ve got giving back on lock, pick something, and get going. We’re all in this together.