I’d like to say I volunteer because I am altruistic. The truth is volunteering gives me an opportunity to learn more about organizations and the people who work there. Today I volunteered to wash cars for families with loved ones at our local hospice. It only makes sense that getting your car washed while your father is in his last few days is not at the top of your “to do” list. You learn a good deal about people’s lives cleaning out their cars. While scrubbing wheels and rinsing I started thinking about how we’ve traditionally motivated volunteers. We tell them they will feel better about themselves or repeat the traditional “I got more out of this than they did”.
While those may be true and I do think about that when I volunteer, I realized today that the real benefit was not anything about feeling better about myself. In fact what was most satisfying was for once not thinking about myself or my feelings about myself at all. C.S. Lewis says somewhere that legitimate humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less. In fact he also says the best kind of humility is a “self-forgetfulness” in which we are not even conscious of how we feel about ourselves at all. That’s how I felt today at hospice. I completely forgot about how I was feeling about myself for doing this. For a few hours I escaped the prison of “me” and just washed cars. There was no need to be thanked or recognized or even to feel good about doing it. I wonder if we aren’t missing something in encouraging people to feel better about themselves by volunteering? It wasn’t even what I would describe as altruism. It was pure and simple self-forgetfulness. Maybe we should figure out a way to describe the benefits of not thinking about ourselves at all. Maybe that’s more precious and scarce and valuable than feeling good.