There was an episode of the sitcom Friends in which Lisa Kudrow’s character, Phoebe, tries every which way to figure out how to do a selfless good deed. The idea being that so often we give -- through deed or checkbook or whatever -- to make ourselves feel good.
At one point, Phoebe thinks she finally accomplishes this by letting a bee sting her. As she told Joey in her inimitable way, it let the bee look cool to its bee friends and she suffered in the process. She becomes thoroughly deflated when Joey informs her that bees die after they sting someone.
The eccentricity of Phoebe notwithstanding, I always found that line of thinking fascinating and, frankly, puzzling. What in the heck is so wrong with feeling good that you’re helping someone? When did anything that makes the “self” feel better become so frowned upon?
I am of the humble opinion that if more people lived in a way that focused on the self and how their gifts and passions can best be used, the world would be a better place by extension. The less disgruntled, worked to the bone, frustrated and martyred we are, the better off everyone around us, even peripherally, will be.
When I recently published an article called “Finding My Niche as a Volunteer Coach” about my experience with pro bono life coaching, one of the comments posted on the piece got me thinking. The reader wondered if this trend, “is moving towards the necessity to find a niche, self-actualization, spiritual calling, and the transpersonal psychology domains.”
I sure hope so, at least on some fronts. If someone has experienced tremendous loss and wants to help others with grief counseling, that could be the key to unlocking a calling. If someone takes a “vacation” to do volunteer work in a poverty-stricken country and feels pulled to make that an annual thing, what is the possible downside?
In the summer issue of World Ark, the magazine of Heifer International, Lauren Wilcox writes about learning- and service-based travel in a piece titled “Go Away for Good.” In it, she quotes Katherine Lu, director of Heifer’s Study Tours.
“For our Study Tour participants, the real service work of the trip comes after participants return home and begin to make changes in their own lives based on what they have seen and learned,” Lu says.
In a sidebar to that World Ark story, Wilcox also tells of a traveler named Kevin Fishner who went to Tanzania on his first trip to a developing country. While there he was touched by how a family would immediately share whenever they received something of value.
“I think that is something that Americans don’t really appreciate,” he said, “the fact that [Americans] are more out for themselves all the way through.”
Now a sophomore at Duke, Fishner has brought, according to Wilcox, what he learned to his studies in the form of “working on international policy as it relates to foreign aid and development.”
Here the two very different interpretations of the word ‘selfishness’ are illustrated perfectly. What did this student get out of visiting Tanzania and helping others? A career path. Does that help him? Yes. What else did he get? A larger world view about giving of what one has and a lens to a way of being other than the one he has witnessed in his own country. If he didn’t know about both kinds of selfishness before, he does now.
According to writer Ann Sanner’s recent Huffington Post article citing a study by the government-run Corporation for National and Community Service, “Americans spent almost 100 million more hours helping out [in 2009], reflecting an increase in both the number of volunteers and the volunteer rate in the population as a whole.”
She goes on to write, “Amid rough economic times, more Americans volunteered in their communities last year than at any time since 2005” and that “the number of people getting involved went up by 1.6 million to 63.4 million, the biggest single-year increase since 2003 and the highest total since 2005.”
While some chalk this up to a lot of unemployed people having nothing better to do, I think that view leaves out the myriad of other options they have, i.e., sitting in front of the TV or wallowing in self pity.
Meanwhile, some of our wealthiest citizens are doing their best to spread it around and set an example. Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are campaigning to get other billionaires to donate the bulk of their wealth. Oprah Winfrey just celebrated the 10th anniversary of O, The Oprah Magazine by giving all employees on its staff an iPad and a $10,000 check.
Still, there are detractors of all of the above:
“They have plenty leftover for themselves.”
“The money would be better spent on … “
“It’s just making them feel better.”
Sorry, folks, sometimes giving just feels good. The bee can’t always die.