Making Volunteerism a Hobby

“Alleviating poverty would not be a success if achieved. It would be a failure if [not achieved].”
– admin of NetWORK in Progress

Not exactly your sunshine-and-roses kind of activism. But it’s true, and that’s not discouraging. Far from it. It’s entirely possible to bask in the sincere joy, satisfaction, and self-worth of your philanthropy, just as it is in the case of any other achievement that is less of a life-or-death matter, without denying that this philanthropy is imperative.

That last part is a more than a little difficult for any person to internalize. I certainly haven’t internalized it yet. I don’t feel, in the concrete sense, as compelled to do my part to decrease world suck on this massive scale as I do to, say, take a shower in the morning or say “Gesundheit” when someone sneezes.

That’s messed up, isn’t it? And it’s completely normal for all but the most amazing world-changers out there. To be frank, I’m jealous of those people. I would love not to be such a walking contradiction, prioritizing my favorite TV show over charitable activism even as I like to think I would scorn a person who wouldn’t jump in a cold lake to save a drowning child. I’m not even saying we all have to be Mother Teresas or something so simple-minded. That would be a strawman designed to dodge the issue. What bothers me is that, wholly independent of how we each uniquely seek to better the world professionally, the way we choose to spend our free time is so very often embarrassingly self-centered (or suboptimally other-centered; you aren’t exactly a paragon of altruism for buying your Valentine’s date a box of chocolates).

Does that sound like a guilt-ridden shout into the vacuum? I don’t mean it to. From the bottom of my heart, I don’t.

That’s one of the myths about philanthropy I want to dispel, that acknowledging the failures of our society so far to address appalling threats to the common good is somehow cause to think we ought to wallow in un-constructive shame. If you think there’s a problem, as there undoubtedly is, what makes you think sincere, non-judgmental attempts to address and raise awareness of that problem are more harmful than doing nothing about that problem? Because I sure as puppies are awesome am not going to be the one to make you feel bad about yourself for playing hours of Flappy Bird instead of making a difference. That would be not only hypocritical and insensitive, but also psychologically naive.

Let no one misunderstand me: I dream of a world in which shaming the Flappy Bird enthusiast would be completely unnecessary, because people would be so excited, genuinely happy, jumping-out-of-your-seat-like-there’s-a-new-Harry-Potter-book-at-Barnes-and-Noble stoked to help each other in profoundly beautiful ways, that other pursuits would seem boring by comparison.

Indeed, the scientist in me craves to understand whence cometh this apathy of ours. Is there some mental health benefit to indulging in the frivolous as often as we do? If so, could the same be achieved with more productive alternatives, perhaps through some neurological or genetic (gasp!) tweaking? Such thoughts are dirty words to a lot of people, but please don’t light your torches and hoist your pitchforks yet. I don’t intend to go into my ideal neuroscientific professional future with a childish disregard for long-term ethical considerations. If there are ways of improving humanity’s empathic capabilities in ways we can’t even currently imagine (such is my rose-colored vision of the fruits of what I hope will be my labors in, and after, college), I’m confident most of us won’t have to be coerced into accepting such changes.

Ask people in the abstract if they care about children dying of preventable diseases, about the struggles of people trapped in cycles of poverty, about the inequity holding back Ugandan schoolgirls, and they’ll say, “Of course.” We, by and large, would like the world to be more just and life-supporting. We simply feel paralyzed by not only fears that we really can’t make a difference, but also the tug of more immediate dopamine rushes.

TL;DR: I don’t doubt that there are ways people can improve society and relieve suffering in non-traditionally “philanthropic” ways. Teachers, police officers/detectives, medical professionals, engineers, soldiers, and the like do that every day. I don’t even doubt that there’s something to be said for the value of the morale and camaraderie a football team can inspire, for the necessity of the cartoonist (at least the actually funny one), for the good that seemingly stupid trinkets like trading cards can do for kids forging friendships. But I also think there’s something to be said for how backward our priorities are in many ways, and how cool it is that we live in a time when there’s a realistic hope that we could scientifically investigate how to shift these priorities. And this is using the word “scientifically” in a broad sense, not just the brain-poking lab stuff.

So as I continue this journey to see what I can do to change the way we think of social activism (as a chore, currently), I hope you take a little time, even just a few minutes today, to reflect on some time when you sincerely enjoyed doing something that helped others. Why not do that again sometime?