If we happen to benefit from “lucky sperm” and achieve some universally-accepted standard of living in this world (like enough to eat and a color tv), shouldn’t we have a moral imperative, as in ineluctable, inescapable, unmeditated, and unpremeditated duty to give back to the unlucky spermers? Without it relying on a charitable whim, or worse, a prayer. Happily the records show more of us are getting there.
A Grinch-like smile curled the corners of my lips as I opened my Internet browser on January 1, 2011, and looked for an open time slot to volunteer at a soup kitchen in the Bronx.
A volunteer junkie for 15 years now, I normally recommend to people on the quest to “give back” that they wait until the last “Fa-la-la” has fallen silent before even thinking to pick up a ladle at the soup kitchen. Unlike the yuletide months of October through December, the nine-month span that follows has been known to leave a non-profit’s volunteer calendar looking akin to a teeth inventory of an eight-year-old: plenty of spaces to fill.
But on this first day of 2011, I stumbled upon a beautiful, beautiful thing… No open spaces until mid-March.
Dear America, you seem to be suiting up, complete with a silk sash with a new title stitched in cursive upon it: The Service Nation.
Our country was once accustomed to associating the idea of “giving back” with the end of the year, stringing up the quaintness in the concept of volunteering with the Christmas awnings and the set of wicker reindeers grazing on the front lawn throughout December. It’s as if a league of paper snowflakes and jolly fellows in red suits on the subway could turn Americans’ receptors on to the prospect of serving at a soup kitchen or reading at a home for the elderly. This is not to belittle the great calling or enormous response that comes with each holiday season. However, the need that exists in our country and the developing world doesn’t get packed away with the ornaments once December 25th shimmies off the calendar. It’s about time we started making room in our basket of New Year’s resolutions to squeeze in a calling to serve our world, no matter the month or the season.
You could very well just wait for the next round of caroling to start giving but fair warning: people began responding to the call to do something yesterday.
We are alive and thriving in a time where giving back and volunteering are morphing into the social norms of society. Now, more than ever before, is a time to utilize the innovative means and technologies at our fingertips to help doctor a nation and a world in need. We have reached the year 2011 and volunteer rates are already booming. Let this be a year where we pump the brakes on “giving back” in order to give forward to the future of this world, building up a strong value system that capitalizes on social good and service to pass on to the next generation.
America has seen her share of troubles in the past few years. A left hook from the financial crisis has left Lady Liberty still picking up the fragile pieces of her economy. One would think our nation’s recession left the call to “give back” sitting on the back burner. However, we have seen just the opposite.
The Corporation for National and Community Service showed in its “Volunteering in America for 2010” report that service has actually gained the most strength since 2003, with 63.4 million Americans volunteering in 2009, a jump of 1.6 million over 2008. Obama’s call to service back in 2008 jump-started a massive pour-in of service applications for programs such as the Peace Corps and Teach for America, and the numbers have continued to climb ever since.
Undoubtedly, America has shifted its gears to become a more service-oriented nation; more corporations now allow employees time off to volunteer and some nonprofits actually have to turn away volunteers. Although the “giving back” is not coming so fruitfully in the form of monetary donations, this has not stopped people from giving what they can during these tough times. Hours. Energy. And perhaps most needed: skills.
Gone are the days when volunteering could only happen at the local food pantry or the church down the road. The digital age has mobilized a movement; an individual can be branding a nonprofit based in Texas one day and then blogging for an orphanage in Honduras the next. The growth of virtual volunteering makes it increasingly more difficult for individuals to turn their faces away from the great call to serve. The need is just a Google search away these days (e.g., Idealist.org), so how can we not do our part?
Matt Damon told Parade Magazine in America’s Giving Challenge 2009 edition, “I’m not a politician, and I don’t want to tell anybody how to live. But I must say, all these years later, I still think Gandhi had the right idea: No matter how small the contribution we make may seem, it’s crucial that we all do our part.” Damon, the co-founder of Water.org, learned at a very young age that if you find a cause that matters to you, it can change your entire mindset.
It’s not about mimicking Atlas and strapping the world onto our shoulders, or viewing service as an obligation or sulky requirement. It’s the mindset of approaching service from a place of passion and simply doing what we can. Giving what we can. Helping when we can.
No matter how much Mother Teresa/Oprah rhetoric is laced throughout this article, the truth of the matter is this: we don’t have to give anything. We can walk through life only serving ourselves or hoarding our gifts away from this world. It would certainly be easier to surrender to the fact that we won’t see the solution in our lifetime. Too much damage has been done. Conflict will still fester in the crooks of many countries, crouching in the borders, like children in a climactic game of hide and seek. Wars will still wage. A child may still die every fifteen seconds for years to come.
But if we take a moment to acknowledge our smallness in the grand scheme of things, our tiny existence in comparison to the lives that will sprout up after us, then our giving back serves as a value system for our children, the future. Giving to those in need is how we set a perfect pitch and tone for a melody that our children will be left to sing. And it would be wise to teach them the words to this melody, so that they are not left stumbling, looking to find their way.
We make the choice every day as we step from our apartments and swipe our MetroCards. It is no one individual’s “obligation” to give money to the panhandlers on the corners of 42nd St. or sponsor a child in Southeast Asia. But the current backdrop of desperation for so many in the world does seem to bring new meaning to the old saying, “to whom much is given, much is required.”
Perhaps, if we are looking for the takeaway from our economy’s devastating downward spiral that left thousands in employment, it is the recognition that with a single shift we could be the ones in need of a helping hand. And in that sudden shift we would hope to find someone on the other side, outstretching a hand.