A couple weeks ago I attended the Dedham Food Pantry’s annual Volunteer Appreciation Night. I felt a little awkward being there and would not have walked in the door had I not been expressly invited. My Food Pantry volunteering is limited to co-hosting a telethon for the cause once a year, while most of the others at the party spend far more of their time, treasure, and talent on this worthy enterprise.
A woman I know socially told me the reason she volunteered at the Pantry on the regular was that it makes her “feel so good inside.” While I’m sure she didn’t mean to, she instigated a period of self reflection for me. I might not give a lot of hours to the Food Pantry, but I would like to think that I put my fair share of time into serving my community, broadly defined.
I knew then and now that I don’t do it because it makes me feel good, but I had to give some serious thought about why I am out four or five or six nights a week at various events and meetings and causes. The best answer I could come up with is that it is because I can, and since I can I should.
Some of the time I spend, quite honestly, is selfish. The organization I spend the most time volunteering for gives me something back that is, to me, far more valuable than any warm and fuzzy. I get to relive a bit of my youth, or at least taste it again for a couple hours. A few times a month I find myself on one of several college campuses where my position – and, truth be told, my personality today – makes me cooler than I ever was when I was a student. I’m proud of the work I do there, but it would be dishonest to say I don’t get anything back from it.
The others, however, are not for fame or glory, or for a chance to drink from the fountain of youth that vanishes like a mirage every time I leave campus. I do it because it is a categorical imperative for me. My primary moral imperative, perhaps. For example, because I believe that every kid deserves a Christmas, I will spend more than I can comfortably afford to help make it a reality. Though I own a home (It may be said that I’m the the lord of my castle, the sovereign, the liege) I have not yet moved into, I will still give up a Saturday morning to work on someone else’s who needs the help more than I do.
Though I have not subjects, servants, children, nor wife, I agree with Mr. Banks that noblesse oblige. I may not be a poor widow either, but it if it is expeted of her then it must be expected of me as well. Bourgeoisie oblige.