When I was in my early 20s I wanted to join the Peace Corps, but I chickened out on giving two years of my life and all of the unknowns. I also secretly wanted to do something in the medical field but was pretty certain I would fail chemistry and besides, my mother was a nurse and I felt I should do something different. So I studied and worked as a journalist when jobs were abundant and then slid into communications and project management.
Basically, a series of desk jobs.
What I didn’t know then that I know now at midlife is that what I was searching for was meaning. I wanted work that mattered; I wanted my life to matter. Or as John Gorman wrote in this essay, I wanted to be of service.
Those tugs I felt towards the Peace Corps and medical studies weren’t really about a love of science or the thrill of some unknown person assigning me to a remote tropical village where I wouldn’t know anyone, it was that tiny voice inside telling me that it wanted to make life better for others.
I just didn’t listen.
I imagine there are millions of us sitting at desks, working for a brand or a mission that we’ve agreed to champion in exchange for money, wondering where in life we got so derailed from meaning. We’re inspired by people who go back to school for more fulfilling careers at midlife or later, but family, bills and the trappings of adult life often offer convincing evidence that the notion isn’t tethered to reality (at least not without serious costs). We think perhaps as soon as we’re not quite so over-scheduled we’ll start volunteering. At some point we’re bound to feel less frayed all the time, right?
But according to a recent article in the Nonprofit Times, while volunteer hours are up, the number of us volunteering is actually down:
“According to the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute, the volunteer rate nationally has dropped from about 29 percent to roughly 25 percent. Based on an adult population of 252 million, that means a decrease of more than 10 million American volunteers.”
If I’m honest, there’s a disconnect between this thought that I should become a hospice volunteer, work at my local homeless shelter or suicide prevention hotline and my hesitation to commit my limited free time. I already work 40 hours a week and make dinner every night for my family, whom I might only relax with during that 20 to 30 minutes of mealtime. So I’m protective of that.
But nonprofits that rely on volunteers are making it easier for the time commitment-shy to get involved. My local warming shelter uses online scheduling for volunteers to pick time slots that work for them. No worrying about being locked into a time where you need to find coverage for your shift; no problem if you need a week or two off.
The American Red Cross has also figured out that ease and meaning motivate people to give blood. They created an app that allows users to find the closest location for donating and the time slots available. But the best part is, once registered, they message donors to tell them when their blood is on the way to someone in need and where exactly it’s being delivered. (Also, as someone with a goal to donate every six weeks in 2019, the recliners are nice and when you’re done they feed you cookies.)
S till, volunteering doesn’t take away that feeling that I’ve invested in a career without the level of meaning that I crave. But there is a quote from author and Buddhist meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg that focuses and calms me when I feel this way. Salzberg says:
“Do the good that is right in front of you, even if it feels very small.”
Meaning, the world really needs our compassion and kindness wherever we find ourselves. Smiles to strangers count. Letting someone hurried go in front of you in line or in traffic counts. Making eye contact and taking time to converse with that person no one in the office really likes counts. They have their story too. And of course being a little bit less of an asshole when you really feel like one inside counts extra.
I’m never going to cure cancer or work to stop famines in Africa. I’ve reconciled that. But embedded in my very ordinary, ever-shortening life are hundreds of opportunities to serve, find meaning, hold doors open and make someone else’s day a tiny bit better, creating a ripple of goodness. The trick for me is remembering that.
When I do, I act accordingly…and that niggling fear that I’m wasting my one precious life begins to soften.
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