Thursday, October 27, 2011

Doing things just because you can

My StatCounter shot off into the stratosphere yesterday, at a rate of 350 page loads in a matter of minutes from a single user, which I suspect is not humanly possible.  After the blog hit 6,000 page loads for the afternoon I posted an inquiry on the Google Help board. Within an hour someone I don't know, and will almost certainly never meet, wrote to me saying the share buttons were broken. He provided instructions on how to turn them off until the problem was fixed.

This made my day. Someone, somewhere took time to be helpful, just because. Just because... he could. Just because... it was a good thing to do. Just because. I love that.

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This past summer when Eldest was home we were chatting one day, and I related to her how I got involved in various volunteer activities. I'm always amazed to realize how little kids know about the backstory of what adults do: how we ended up in various situations, the thought process (or lack thereof) that got us there, what effort it took. This is my fault, because I forget to talk about these things.

Back in my single days, when I was a Director of Marketing for a Very Large Insurance Company and an up-and-coming ambitious young exec, I went to an open house for volunteering. It was an excellent event, one which I've always meant to replicate but have never got around to doing. One local organization in my neighborhood invited all the nearby non-profits who needed volunteers to come over one night, and also invited anyone in the community who was thinking about getting involved in some kind of volunteer work. Many matches were made.

Not long later, my phone rang at work and it was a woman who wanted to meet me for lunch to talk about having me join the board of the local mental health clinic. (The mental health clinic had been the sponsor of the volunteer fair.) I explained, somewhat embarrassed, that I knew nothing about mental illness or mental health. My experience was limited to inadvertent encounters with homeless people on the subway who'd forgotten to take their meds.

That didn't bother her. Somehow she convinced me to meet her anyway, and over sandwiches she persuaded me to join the board for a trial period.

It was not a high-powered group. The Board was a mishmash of people, some of whom were clients of the clinic, some of whom were family members. I felt rather out of place. But within a couple of months it was obvious I was needed: I was the only person there with the skill set to do certain kinds of tasks that needed to be done. Things like political strategy and fundraising fell in my bailiwick. It wasn't that I felt a need to do these things. It wasn't that I wanted to do them. It wasn't even that I knew how to do them. But I was the one person there who could do them. So, I did.

I could go on about where that led me, but the destination isn't the point. The model for my volunteer work has been pretty much the same my whole adult: I just sort of found myself in a place where it was obvious that I was the right person for the job.

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The advantage of finding myself in situations where I can do what's needed is that there's little ego involved. In my heart of hearts I know that I don't know what I'm doing. The only difference between me and others who don't know what they're doing is a) I have different skill sets to tap (I can give testimony at a public hearing, or write persuasive letters to officials), and b) I'm okay with doing things that are uncomfortable for me.

At various points in my adult life I have been the buildings manager of a church that had had a big fire, the head of a "Friends of ____ Park" committee, the organizer of an event commemorating a Revolutionary War battle, the head of the research committee at my daughter's high school, and a facilitator of neighborhood events. There are seasons when I've done a lot of volunteer work, and seasons when I've done almost nothing. After Little Guy was born I withdrew from heading up an organization, and the group died. That was okay; I can only do what I can do, and it's not my job to save the world. But it is my job to contribute to it. 

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The great blessing of doing things because you can rather than because you're burning with motivation is that there's little ego involved. That frees up a huge amount of energy. Life gets simpler when we're not trying to force the universe to rotate around ourselves.

One of the most important things I learned in high school (perhaps one of the only things I learned) was the Ptolomaic explanation of the universe. Way back in the second century they were trying to figure out why the sun and moon and planets appeared to move at differing speeds. Astronomers came up with a complex explanation that involved something called epicycles. These cycles within cycles could, more or less, explain the observations of how the sky moved around the earth.

The real explanation, of course, is much simpler: planets revolve around the sun, not Earth (or a point somewhere near it).

We put a lot of epicycles in our lives, because we assume that everything revolves around us. The simpler, more elegant explanation is that it doesn't.   

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