Faith

I recently spent about eight days visiting a good friend who is almost overwhelmed with the stress of her obligations. Her biggest challenge is taking care of an older family member who has been in a wheelchair for decades and is now suffering from dementia, cancer and depression … my friend also has an 11 year old, a challenging job, three pets and a deep desire to celebrate the holidays. For those eight days, I pitched in any way I could: consulting on which Christmas tree to buy, helping to set it in the stand and secure it to the wall so the cats don’t knock it down, plus grocery store runs, waiting with her for the home health aide (who never showed up three days in a row), wrapping Christmas packages, sous chef… She told me that having me there felt like taking a weight off her chest

I have also been making efforts to volunteer with not-for-profits that focus on work I believe in. This blog has described a couple of days working in food pantries (Ethics and Eating, July 9) but I am also training to tutor public school kids who are lagging in reading, practicing job interviews with formerly incarcerated people who are working on re-entry, and writing to a prisoner who is working on a book about his spiritual beliefs. These volunteer efforts are far more challenging than dedicating eight days to help a friend – the commitments are inconvenient, the technology is out of my comfort zone, and the work can be physically exhausting. I have to learn new practices and work as a cog in a usually creaky system.

But the biggest difference between helping my friend and my volunteer efforts is the feeling of accomplishment. When I volunteer, if there is success, I haven’t seen the celebration and I don’t know how much I contributed to that result. But after 40 years of friendship, I have a good idea of what will be helpful and I can efficiently deliver that. The reward of hearing my friend tell me that a weight is off her chest is enormous.

My conclusion is NOT that I will stop pursuing these volunteer efforts in favor of weeks visiting friends to help them with their personal burdens. One lesson from my long career is that a feeling of accomplishment easily bleeds into ego gratification and can warp my priorities. Since each of my volunteer efforts supports something that is important to me, I will teach my ego to be patient while I learn my volunteer tasks and wait for the signs that the volunteering has impact. If those signs never come, maybe I can contribute to improving the process or possibly I need to have faith in consequences I can’t see. 

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