THE ART OF VOLUNTEERING: A PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE
Houston Zoo, Houston, Texas
This paper will discuss how volunteer services can lead us to express different aspects of ourselves including qualities we have ignored and latent talents and abilities while, at the same time, having fun. We can take effective action to make a positive difference and immediate impact on our world and community.
Change is Natural and Inevitable
Modern life is so complex! The rapid tempo of change in today’s society reflects the growth of knowledge, technology and affluence. Our world is changing so rapidly we are born into a world that is drastically changed by the time we are adults. Merely surviving is no longer a primary issue for most people. In the current times, we tend to consider the meaning and quality of our existence. When we do stop and reflect, we might find ourselves experiencing anxiety and perhaps anguish when we consider questions such as Who am I? What am I doing with my life? Why? What is really important? What does it all mean? Does it really matter?
Man’s Search for Meaning
According to Viktor Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist, man cannot “make” his life meaningful nor can anyone else “give” him meaning for his life. He must discover it for himself. Others can influence this discovery. Frankl pointed out that basic to being human is being conscious of and faithful to our responsibilities in life.
Living our lives in such a way that we are responsible toward ourselves and others contributes to a meaningful life. Frankl also believed that life has meaning when we grow and move toward the achievement of values.
Creative values are nurtured when we work for the benefit of society. Volunteer service in community projects can be a creative act. Developing ourselves through responsible achievements provides us an avenue to find one of life’s meanings.
The sense of having a purpose gives balance to our human situation. How many of us can really say that our work life is in balance with our personal life? We report feelings of isolation, insecurity, and alienation. In early societies, especially those of indigenous people, collective and communal work was the norm. In our culture, we are individually economically motivated and work for monetary reward. Competition creates personal stress, damages our physical and mental health, and damages personal relationships. Competition and stress are contradictory to cooperation and interdependence. We find ourselves yearning for a cause that inspires our soul.
A cause can lift our sprits and lead to passion which lights up our lives and the lives of others.
Many people discover that finding time for volunteer service gives them an opportunity to see and experience life in a new way. The sense of making a meaningful contribution and having a purpose gives balance to our lives. Volunteer service provides opportunities to learn how other people live, experience new environments, and learn new skills.
There is also an opportunity to acquire new insights into ourselves. Personal qualities, talents, and abilities we have ignored may come into our awareness. Volunteer service gives us the satisfaction of helping others and making an impact on our world and community. This satisfaction gives us a break from the urban rat race. Getting involved in community service can be helpful in a period of personal difficulty, i.e., losing a job, a divorce, the death of a significant other, children leaving home, retirement, or relocating.
Community service is helpful because while serving others, we tend to put our troubles aside. There is a healing power in doing good.
Many people believe they don’t have time to get involved, however, the same people often complain of feeling isolated and lonely. It is easy to talk philosophically and abstractly about being part of the larger community, but the important thing is to take action and live that realization.
Doing something good for someone else, whether it is animal or human, can also act as a stress buffer, and enhance our stress resilience. Volunteer service often results in getting more than you give which can be achieved without drastic commitments of our time and energy. Small, simple acts of generosity and kindness can go a long way. Most everyone wants to feel that they are making a constructive difference in the lives of others. Our volunteer contributions of giving our gifts to others is also giving to ourselves. We are giving ourselves a chance to live our values, express our talents, and share our love. We are giving ourselves a chance to experience making a meaningful difference and feel alive in the process.
Volunteer service gives us an opportunity to do what we are called to do which may or may not coincide with our occupation. The matter of calling is individualized. Your calling is your natural and unique way of being useful. It can be a pleasure to witness a volunteer doing what he or she was meant to do, i.e., a hard driving corporate executive might find that he has the patience and sensitivity to work with the elderly or children.
Human beings are social creatures, and most of our choices are made in the context of the various organizations in which we participate. On the largest scale, our whole society is an organization. On the smallest, every single, social relationship we have is an organization. The decisions we make and the actions we take directly effect others. Listening for what moves or draws us the most leads us to our calling.
Life is an integrated whole. Each area of our lives affects all others. We tend to forget the interconnectedness of all things. We are social animals. We yearn for a sense of connection and meaning in our lives. We have long recognized that animals have the potential to connect emotionally with humans. We are merely one thread in the design of life. There is a longing in many human hearts to love and be loved by an animal as we long to love and be loved by another person. Zoo volunteers tend to be aware of the importance of living in harmony with the vast ecology of all life.
Through animals, especially our pets, we have a practical, trusted, routine way to relate to nature in order to provide a balance to the rat race and materialistic society. We feel a sense of unity with nature. Animals can represent an intimate and enduring look at another life form in mind and spirit, and act as a thread connecting us back to nature. Animals can be tokens of the values we cherish. They help cultivate the awareness that we are not alone in the world. We are united to all living things. Animals can help take us outside of our daily self-absorption. The bond between animals and humans is known to improve both physical and mental health.
We are truly a kindred spirit with all life. Animals can be the teachers who can help us recover a sense of connection.
The word “animal” comes from a Latin root that means “soul”. Animals, like us, are living souls. To ancient thinkers, soul was the mysterious force that gave life and breath to the myriad of earth’s creatures. As we live through the calendar of our days, we cannot escape the confusion, conflict, misery, and distrust so common everywhere around us. It is not unusual to be discouraged by the erosion of values in our world.
Aware individuals observe the decline of levels of honesty, integrity, unselfishness, enthusiasm, fun, goodness, and happiness. Kinship with all life is threatened. Volunteer service can be one of the antidotes to the current maladies of our society. Observing animals can demonstrate that their instincts and adaptations to life are sometimes healthier than our own. Volunteer work provides us an opportunity to broaden the circle of our compassion, resulting in life being less cruel. Reverence for all living things is deep-seated in our hearts. If we get in touch with the sacredness of every life, there is hope for the future. Sharing our lives and time through volunteer service provides us with opportunities to grow in competence and character. While engaged in volunteer service, we could call ourselves practicing artists since we are not motivated by external rewards, but by the internal rewards of self-expression and service to humanity.
I attended three docent orientation programs over a period of several years. Each time I walked away with the thought that I could not afford the required time to develop my long-term passion for interaction with animals and nature. I had become overly identified with other roles in my life, and was strongly identified with my career as a psychotherapist. My life felt out of balance, at times a dizzy blur. After stepping back and assessing my own process, I decided to follow my intuitive rhythms. Having committed to the docent program at the Houston Zoo, I find that I have arranged my life so that I still concentrate on my full time work, and also find time to volunteer at the zoo. I enjoy the aspect of expressing a different part of myself, and interacting with different people in a different setting than I am generally used to.
Development of volunteer organizations can be enhanced by understanding the psychological motivations of individuals who seek to volunteer, and the benefits they receive. Consideration of points previously discussed in this paper in recruiting volunteers and the design of training programs would enhance the effectiveness of your programs.
In summing up, I feel the following quotation expresses the essence of the thoughts in this paper:
“We only start to live when we rise above the narrow confines of individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.