Volunteering: Self Love, Altruism, Or What?
I met Jes through the mail in 2008. We exchanged mail, she introduced me to April, and I’ve flown to Chicago multiple times to hang out with these gals. The second time I went Jes wasn’t there, though, because she was in Togo, Africa with the Peace Corps. She’s going to talk about that experience and explore the concept of volunteering. Is any good deed truly selfless? Does altruism exist? Let’s talk about it.
Hi, I’m Jes. I’m a very blunt (because I value transparency) 80’s baby queer woman from Chicago. I consider myself to be an advocate, activist, and pride myself on interrupting racism, and dismantling heteronormativity and various systems of oppression. I’ve worked in a homeless shelter, a women’s prison, a suicide hotline, and I am a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.
Sounds pretty altruistic, right?
But we all know it’s not that clear-cut.
Let’s back up.
I asked Uncustomary if she would let me write a blog post for her site about my personal experience in order to encourage her readers to get involved with a nonprofit I work closely with called Expanding Lives. (See what I mean by transparent?) So with that objective in mind, I pitched several ideas that intersected with her overall message of self-love without even mentioning self or love until she did.
And holy shit am I grateful she did. My objective completely shifted from promoting just one nonprofit to reflecting on the implications/why I am so passionate about getting others involved.
The most tangible reason is because I believe in the mission of Expanding Lives. And as a result of my two years living in West Africa, I know the ripple effect that programs like this have not only for young women, but for their whole family and their whole village.
But it goes deeper than that. Yes, there are the obvious benefits of receiving praise and being perceived as a “good person”, which is a nice added bonus, but honestly is not a significant motivator for me. I know this because there are plenty good deeds that I do and do not tell anyone about. (Exception being the care packages I give out to people asking for money on the street. I highly recommend making at least one or two and giving them to the first people who ask you for money.)
I do it because it feels good and I feel connected to people and community and I feel a sense of love. I’m not one to get super cheesy and make cliché comments, therefore this may possibly be the first time I’m even admitting to myself that the sense of love is my motivator. (As Kant and Freud observed, people’s true motives may be hidden.)
A lot of people already question whether pure altruism exists, but does the answer actually matter? Will it change our decisions, our involvement, our fulfillment or the love and service we provide to others?
There are already several studies proving that gratitude makes us happy (versus happiness making us grateful) but also that volunteerism is intrinsically rewarding. Even this study questions why more people don’t volunteer if we know it is so beneficial.
Maybe a barrier is traditional understanding of happiness? As explained in Get Politically Engaged, Get Happy?, “Traditionally, psychologists have measured happiness in terms of how one is feeling in the moment — whether a person is experiencing pleasant emotions, isn’t suffering from unpleasantness and is pretty much satisfied with his or her life.” This is known as “hedonic” well-being.
The authors argue that “eudaimonia” — a sense of life having purpose and direction – is equally as important. “It’s the sense that my life is a good life, not because I have a lot of pleasure, but because life is meaningful, because it feels like I’m striving for a higher purpose.”
As someone who has struggled with mental illness, this could make all of my past work and volunteer experience seem very selfish… and maybe it was. But does the answer actually matter? Would acknowledging selfishness have changed my decision or the fulfilment I got or the love and service I provided?
TRIGGER WARNING: SUICIDE
As someone who attempted suicide at age 14 and subsequently battled (and still battles) long and dark depressive episodes, I needed to do something to climb out of the hole I was stuck in.
My first true “volunteer-volunteer” experience (versus “mandated-volunteer” hours for school) was a trip to Belize, Central America when I was 18. I can’t really tell you exactly what attracted me to this opportunity to fundraise $1700 to go to a developing country, but I knew that there was more to the world that I wasn’t seeing. I was curious, to say the least.
This is when I started questioning the notion of altruism. If I was there to help but I learned so much, had so much fun and connected to so many people, didn’t I get just as much out of the experience? I feel the same way, years later, about my Peace Corps service.
Not to get all Freudian about “work and love”, but I felt fulfilled from both aspects. And I couldn’t stop.
I signed up for every opportunity to be involved and give my time. I joined Alpha Phi Omega, a co-ed service fraternity, in undergrad. I volunteered to clean seniors’ yards. I marched in several protests. And I burnt out.
2010 protest in Bloomington-Normal, IL against SB1070 in Arizona
Now, still very young, I’ve learned better balance. I eat healthier and take care of my body. I have a steady job that is fulfilling and pays my bills. But I still make time to be on the Board of Directors for Expanding Lives, to make the homeless care packages, and to stick You Are Beautiful stickers all over town.
(Punta Gorda, Belize, 2006)
Not to mention, I’ve met and befriended some of the most inspiring, compassionate and awesomest people ever.
So I don’t know how to answer the question about the reason(s) why I volunteer, but I do know that volunteering, regardless of motivation, has drastically changed my life.
Stereotypical Peace Corps photo of a white person with a cute black kid. I love Fabrice, so stereotype away!
Are you thinking, “When is she gonna ask me to donate money?”
I won’t. That’s just one of a million ways to get involved and sometimes isn’t helpful. (I wrote this in February 2012.)
I’m encouraging you to get involved as a volunteer or an activist in whatever way is ideal for you… It may not only change your well-being for the better, but also the world.
Please consider supporting Expanding Lives, too
Expanding Lives empowers young women who are first in their family to make it high school (in countries where less than 10% make it past junior high) to continue their education and become leaders. We have no paid staff; we’re 100% volunteer-run. Our scholars have gone on to become lawyers, doctors, teachers, and role models.
If you are shopping this holiday season, please sign up for Goodshop and purchase items through there so that Expanding Lives gets a portion of your purchase. Even easier: share the info in the following links on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and ask others to do the same. (If you’re in the Chicagoland area or DC, we have plenty of other opportunities to get involved.)
PS: If you’re thinking about working in communities other than your own, take a look at this 5-minute clip by someone I served with in Togo, West Africa. Make sure you’re measuring your success in an effective and empowering manner.
Jes Scheinpflug is a lifelong learner who is hungry for connection and knowledge. She lives in Chicago and is pursuing her Master of Social Work. She served as a Girls’ Education and Empowerment Extension Agent from 2010-2012 with the United States Peace Corps. She sits on the Board of Directors for Expanding Lives. You can e-mail her or find her on Facebook and Twitter
Want even more tips, tricks, and support with your journey of self love? Treat yourself to my e-course, Self Love: The Key To Happiness.