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OTC: Feeling Bad About Doing Good

A bad experiences doesn't necessarily signify bad intent.

June 20, 2002
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My first brush with volunteering involved walking 20 miles in a March of Dimes walkathon during my sophomore year of high school. I signed up not out of a burning desire to prevent birth defects, but because I wanted to get away from home and smoke Virginia Slims with my clique of 15-year-old Gloria Steinem wannabes. The four us choked our way through an entire pack that afternoon, at the end of which we high-fived and proudly proclaimed: "We've come a long way, baby." It was volunteerism that smacked of self-righteousness, not altruism.

In my 20s, I undertook volunteering as a form of skill development. I trained as a career counselor, for example, and spent every Tuesday afternoon advising seasoned professionals twice my age how to have a satisfying career. "Close your eyes, look into your heart, and tell me what you really want to be doing," I'd say, my voice brimming with tenderhearted concern. I was the Kathy Lee Gifford of career counselors. A cheerleader one minute, in tears the next.

Buoyed by my success, I pursued a string of volunteer assignments over the next 10 years. I was an AIDS buddy, a counselor at a health agency, and a support-group facilitator for teenage girls who generously helped me realize I wasn't as cool as I thought. "You don't know what phat means?" one of them asked while stretching a piece of green chewing gum out of her mouth. My coolness quotient irreparably damaged, I resigned from the support group, and my volunteer inclinations entered a fallow stage.

Then I turned 40, and the yearning to give resurfaced. I had to prove to myself that I am not, in fact, the center of the universe.

I chose to volunteer at a hospital. I attended an orientation, posed for an ID badge, and learned that as a valued member of the volunteer team, I would earn a free meal in the cafeteria for every four hours worked. "It's really good food," the coordinator assured me. "Marriott runs the place." She then handed me a smock that was the same blue-green hue as the dye discharged by Tidy-Bowl dispensers, a color she called "teal."

I arrived for my first day of work and was taken to the post-surgical unit where I'd been assigned. It was a busy afternoon, and the nurse manager looked at me with a panicked expression that said: "A volunteer? Today??"

While waiting for her to complete a series of whispered conversations, I stood to the side and tried to look my helpful best. I envisioned my first task. Would it be soothing a patient's brow with cold compresses? Holding hands with distraught family members? Huddling in a meeting of trauma surgeons? None of the above, as it turned out.

When the manager finally broke free, she led me into a storeroom, piled white terrycloth towels and washrags onto a stainless-steel cart, and told me to replenish the towels in the patients' rooms.

"Really?" I asked, certain she'd mistaken me for a volunteer with far less ambition.

"Yes, really."

This must be how they test the attitudes of new volunteers, I told myself. The Important Medical Work would come later.

I straightened my back and valiantly wheeled the rickety cart down the hall, the Rosie the Riveter of towel-replacement volunteers. What the task lacked in effort, I'd make up for in enthusiasm. Ten minutes later, I returned to the nurses' desk. My next challenge? To replenish the water in the patients' rooms. Determined to prove my volunteer might, I adopted the fervor of a game-show host. "More water?!" I asked each patient. "More ice chips?!" Out of 13 patients, I had two takers. That job, too, was completed in 10 minutes.

I hesitated before returning to the nurses' station again. I yearned for a list of routine tasks I could complete without instruction. I wanted to be a volunteer, not a bother. I tiptoed up to the busy counter and waited. Several long minutes later, the nurse manager finally looked up at me, her eyes white with alarm. It was as if I'd caught her slipping narcotics into her purse.

Desperate to be rid of me, she shipped me to another unit, where I was given the chore of assembling information packets. Eyeing the tall stacks of inserts, I was relieved that the job would take longer than 10 minutes to complete. But relief was soon devoured by boredom, accompanied by a grinding effort to stay focused. Would this afternoon ever end?

It didn't occur to me when I signed up to be a hospital volunteer that because I have no medical training, the only tasks I would be qualified for would be those that require no medical training.

As I assembled the information packets, my mind pinballed between several emotions. Bing! I hate this job. Bing! Are you so above it all that you can't do a few menial tasks? Bing! Maybe it will be better next week. I wanted to flee, but quitting seemed wrong.

Two more hours of mind-numbing work followed. Although the employees, well trained to appreciate volunteers, gave me hearty thanks after each task, their gratitude was vastly disproportionate to the work. I felt like I was being given precious heirlooms for taking phone messages.

I lay in bed that night trying to conjure an illness severe enough for me to withdraw from the hospital. Then I berated myself for being so spoiled. Then I listed all the reasons this particular gig didn't work for me: 1) I wanted to feel needed, not in the way. 2) I wanted to learn new skills, not resort to those last used in high-school temp jobs. 3) I wanted to interact with other people, not towels and ice chips.

When I compared my reasons for volunteering with the actual experience, it became clear what a mismatch it was. I wasn't a bad person for wanting to withdraw. I'd simply made a bad choice. It's happened before, of course. I've made regrettable decisions in relationships, in jobs, in clothing choices. What I began to realize, lying there in the dark, my teal smock in a heap next to the bed, was that just because I've sometimes made bad choices, it doesn't mean the intent was wrong. Only the experience was. Yes, I have come a long way. Maybe.

Workforce, January 2002, pp. 20,24 -- Subscribe Now!

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