We recently attended a dinner party with several other couples that we had known casually for years. During the evening's particularly lively discussion, one guest ventured, "You cannot live your life for others because you would find yourself poured out, completely empty."
This reminded me of another statement I had heard from another source, "I'll volunteer when I'm retired."
While it's true that "compassion fatigue" does strike those who give and give and give – the majority of people I know find that they are actually renewed rather than depleted when they help others. I'm not sure where you stand on things, but I feel that these two points of view (which are, in fact, one and the same) are diametrically opposed to what someone in this century should be thinking. Let me explain why.
Today on the way home from work, I tuned in to the radio and heard details about the Michael Brown shooting and the resulting unrest in Ferguson, MO. I heard about a 9-year old who accidentally shot her firearms instructor. With an Uzi. I heard about an overdose. A suicide. 1,400 children sexually exploited in the UK. A grim view of the staggering troubles in this world – all in less than 5 minutes.
Yes, boundaries are important, to be sure. But I couldn't help but feel that an attitude that isolates us deprives the world of much needed compassion and robs us of years of joy that giving back brings.
In the nonprofit circle I live in, I witness both the overwhelming need, and the incomprehensible joy that comes when kindness changes the life path of another human being.
When we think of the needs of others and tend to them unselfishly, we stand to improve our own happiness. It's a scientific fact that altruistic behavior releases endorphins, giving what's known as the "helper's high." A study of the National Institutes of Health found that when people donated money to worthy causes, the brain associates it with pleasure, connection, and trust. And I know plenty of therapists who prescribe volunteering as an aid to depression.
By taking the lens off our own problems and making concerted efforts to help others who are overburdened by greater difficulties, we feel needed and connected to something larger than ourselves.
Giving to others should be a daily act, a habit – something we seek out on purpose. It is our vocation – what we are called to do, what we need to do to have a healthy future. In this way, I believe we demonstrate true selflessness and experience true joy.
We have limited time. I believe that what we do with it is a demonstration of true character. Investing time only pleasing yourself is, well, selfish – plain and simple. You can spend your down time just watching TV and eating in fancy restaurants. But, in the end, are you a better person? Is it a better world?
No one is expected to take on all of the world's problems, but I encourage you to thoughtfully decide how you are going to heal the brokenness that is all around us. Find something you are passionate about and parlay it into a way of changing lives.
Enjoy cooking? The local homeless shelter could use your help. Love dogs? Call the nearest shelter and ask about volunteer opportunities. Passionate about children? Volunteer at the hospital to be a baby cuddler. Wish the neighborhood was tidier? Grab your kids and take a walk and make a game out of who can pick up the most garbage. Can't seem to fit anything else in your schedule? Let your wallet do the work. Live in a way that makes room for those in need.
Be deliberate in how you are going to be remembered. Make it real. Make it happen. Make a difference.