David Cameron’s ‘big society’ has caused a lot of comment. Volunteering to do unpaid jobs doesn’t pay the rent/mortgage or bring food on the table. In this day and age people are obliged to work long hours and have busy lives. Very few of them have the energy or time to help with civic duties such as helping with youth groups, parent teacher associations, charity shops, or citizen advice centres. Equally there are many people out there sadly who would in any case only get out of bed for payment of money.
Is more volunteering needed to mend society?
Yet we are faced with the reality that if we want our streets cleared of litter and walls rid of graffiti we’re going to have to do it ourselves because local government budgets will no longer stretch that far. More volunteering does seem to be needed.
On another level the whole debate raises questions about the ethics of our taking more responsibility for ourselves, our health, our waste, our kids, our environment, our elderly, the energy we use and not expecting others to do everything for us.
It has been suggested that people nowadays in Britain are less public spirited. So volunteering is mainly done by older people or by people with illness themselves, or by people who strongly believe in a the traditional religious values of a caring society.
Is volunteering to do something for nothing realistic?
There are numerous examples of soldiers volunteering for activities going beyond the call of duty in risking death to help their injured comrades. Despite this, cynics doubt all acts of self-sacrifice and altruism saying that if you look underneath each you will find a selfish motive.
On the other hand an ethical perspective maintains that people should do things for others as well as for self.
Is volunteering & being useful to society just a matter of ethics?
Not only is being useful for the sake of others an ethical decision, it is also a method for self-improvement. Moving away from being self-orientated, we can learn to become more engaged with the needs of others. With less time to dwell on self we can find unsuspected energy from people around us.
Volunteers themselves often comment that they get much more out of being a volunteer than they put in as a volunteer. Strangely enough, thinking of others instead of wondering ‘What’s in it for me?’ is a rewarding experience. Being distracted from our own worries we find peace of mind in reflecting on other situations.
This method of spiritual growth involves focusing of what is needed and getting on and doing it. This doesn’t have to mean volunteering for things. But it does mean reflecting on opportunities for being useful during the course of the average day.
If not publicly volunteering how to assess private usefulness
There is plenty that can be usefully done in the home and in the way we relate to our family. Do we keep things clean and tidy as this will affect our family’s comfort? At shared meals do we try to partake in cheery conversation such as voicing appreciation for the person who has taken the trouble to prepare the food?
Likewise outside the home, we can ponder on the way we usually do things. Do we make people wait for something from us when we could do it sooner? Examples include answering an email message, responding to a request, paying a debt, and leaving a parking spot for which another driver is waiting. Often we do things for our own convenience rather than that of others.
Do we waste resources needed also by people in the community? For example letting tap water run unnecessarily. Are we careless in using public facilities? Library books, beaches, parks, buildings, hotel rooms, and rented appliances all come to mind.
What about the way we work?
Do we do our best at things? For example reading systematically to increase our expertise in some area. By being knowledgeable we are more likely to be of use. Or do we read only for entertainment or distraction?
Do we do our work carefully or sloppily? Psychologist, Wilson Van Dusen considers two repairmen. One aims at maximising profits. He grinds out as many repairs as possible. The other also is concerned with profits. Although he isn’t greedy about making the most money possible, he doesn’t cut his prices, for this would overlook his obligations to himself and his family. We need to be useful to ourselves as well as to other people. He tries to balance his own needs with those of his customers. If he gives away his services too cheaply he will soon be out of business and no longer of use to people who need repairs to be fixed. However he enjoys meeting them, talking about repair problems and he enjoys exercising his skill. The aim of the first repairman is his profit above the customer’s welfare, and the aim of the second is profit through the customer’s welfare.
It takes systematic self-witnessing on a daily basis to be able to answer these questions objectively and accurately. But it is likely to be worth the effort. Noticing the benefits we bring to our small society gives an untold sense of fulfilment. And we may even find a little appreciation from others on the way.
Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems