By Bart Vogelzang

Admittedly, I’m hardly an expert on this topic, but I love to look at human behaviors from my own experiences, just to see what I can figure out. It seems to me that there are two types of volunteering; stepping forward to take on a special task for which you receive some kind of compensation, and taking on a task for which you will not receive compensation. “Compensation” is tricky, but for this discussion I will take it to mean direct remuneration…in other words, you get paid. An employee might ‘volunteer’ to take on a particularly shitty task that nobody else wants to take on, like staying late on Christmas Eve, but since there is payment involved it is not really volunteering in the sense that I want to discuss.

We’d probably quickly grind to a halt as a society if everyone demanded payment for what they do. The first victim would be the newborn infant who has no ability to pay for food, shelter, or comfort. Fortunately for us all, Mother Nature, in the form of natural selection, or God for the religious, has taken care of this problem with the maternal and paternal instinct. Right from the beginning the parents volunteer to nurture, support, and love the helpless infant, right through till it becomes mature enough to make some serious effort to support itself. And therein lies the rub…maturing means less dependency and less dependency means a decrease in the parents’ interest in donating all of their energy and effort. There is a slow but distinct shift from volunteering with pleasure to volunteering unwillingly, to completely severing the dependency ties. Does this carry over into other forms of volunteering? Is there a direct relationship between dependencies and interests in volunteering? Is volunteering simply a different form of the parental instinct?

Checking the nature of the volunteer work may provide an answer. They help with emergencies. That’s pretty obviously a direct connection with helplessness, and it doesn’t take much reflection to realize that the greater the human disaster the greater the help that is offered. It is also pretty obvious that those who are seen to be stronger get less concern and help than those who are seen to be weak. Even when it comes to animals we are much more likely to seek to protect a cuddly kitten from harm than an injured cougar. We help with battered women shelters, but finding even one shelter for battered men will probably leave you frustrated. Our evident need to help the helpless is almost certainly a reflection of our parental instinct. Childcare, eldercare, hospital helpers, crossing guards, money drives for children’s hospitals, cancer cure drives and those for other diseases, the Red Cross, the SPCA, and many more are all evidence that support this concept.

However, there are lots of people volunteering at things that have no direct connection with helping the helpless. They go around picking up trash from sidewalks and parks, or train for possible future emergencies with no real expectation of ever even seeing a disaster. They volunteer as library helpers, or volunteer their free help with large public events even if those events are profit motivated, or make toys and playgrounds for kids even when they will never even see those kids, or volunteer support to political candidates with their electioneering efforts. Obviously something else is at work as these are not parental instincts.

Maybe it is a matter of needing acceptance, a matter of wanting to feel valued and appreciated by others. Maybe our need, as human beings, is such that we absolutely require a feeling of being needed and wanted by others; being loved, even if in only a small way. That would certainly explain the parent’s need to help their child, even after the kids become demanding of their own freedoms. It could explain the need for the unloved or rejected to seek gangs and cults that may seem totally bizarre to others of us. It might even explain why some will join groups that hate others, since they can at least find their own acceptance within that group. Logic cannot pry them away, for to leave would almost certainly remove their sole protection from isolation and condemnation. The only hope to rescue people in that situation may be to offer them a new and improved acceptance and love by a greater community.

Some organizations complain that they keep losing their volunteers, and with great effort they will seek to find new ones. However, they may well be missing the point; that they are failing to provide that much needed acceptance, respect and love that their volunteers are craving. Unless there is an immediate helpless victim to assist, the only ‘benefit’ to the volunteer is that tenuous and intangible feeling of human connection, and if that is not understood and nurtured by the group, the volunteer will seek it elsewhere. Any group seeking to get help and support from others, particularly long-term volunteers, must find a way to love others, accept others, and respect others. Ultimately the groups that are most accepting, loving and respectful will become stronger and gain more support, and those who are hateful, nasty, and intolerant will lose out; sadly though, the latter are very likely to become ever more bitter and frantic as they feel that the acceptance of themselves is being eroded.

The omission of religious groups has been deliberate. Unfortunately, the substitution of a god, over love from other people, has created a major problem for some people. Much like ‘thinking happy thoughts’ will not improve your situation in an emergency, although it may give you temporary relief from despair, thinking ‘God loves you’ will give you temporary relief from despair, but your brain will still recognize that you are being short-changed, as the love you are sensing is not real, but a construct of the mind, and it knows that. Volunteering to ‘spread the word of God’ is really only a desperate effort to pull more people into your group, so that you have more real people around you who may potentially love and accept you. Spreading lies and hatred is almost identical in nature, with the real but not recognized goal being to have more people in your group who think as you do. It will never work though, as only love will be met with love, only respect will be met with respect, and only acceptance will be met with acceptance.

One momentary thought I had was that if we all love, respect, and accept each other, nobody will volunteer for anything, as we would have all that we need in the way of love and there would be no need to seek it by helping out; but honestly, I think it would be the other way around, that everyone would feel so good about assisting others that they wouldn’t hesitate to extend that helping hand immediately. Perhaps the time to start is now, to help make volunteering happen.