I don’t know how to start today’s reflection any other way than a simple, straightforward affirmation; I was a straight-up asshole to deal with Friday night. Be forwarned and grab the cheeseboard, because the following will include a whole lotta whine.
It was 6:30 in the evening and I was starving. I had just finished a six-hour shift at Rita’s, and after a few goof-ups and a steady stream of customers, my smile just wanted to take a nap. Above all, I just didn’t want to be at the freaking “potluck” I found myself at. The very use of the term “potluck” should tell you something about the event.
Old people. Lots of them.
I have nothing against old people, but I’m 23. Needless to say, spending a Friday evening with couples in their 50s and 60s while eating mediocre crab soup and store-bought rolls isn’t something I want to do. The fact alone underscores an issue I’ve been dealing with over the past few weeks, adding more fuel to my fire for why I don’t want to go on my church mission trip to Biloxi, Mississippi in a week.
(This is the point where if you’re apt to tune out after reading ‘mission trip,’ I beg you to stay. Don’t think of us this as a collection of Bible-carrying, clean-cut young men with name tags. Mostly, it’s just middle-aged folks awkwardly wielding hammers in a completely secular effort to rebuild an area still dealing with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.)
I have a gazillion reasons to not want to go on this trip. For the sake of continuing my asshole style of analysis, let me list them. One, I’m paying to go out of my own pocket. Let me say that again; I’m paying to volunteer. Like, what the hell? Two, I’m forgoing a week on the job, and losing more money. Three, I’m giving away the lifeblood of my internet connection for a week, and possibly handing over my weekly standbys of Modern Family and The Office in favor of whatever nonsense other people want to watch. And on top of it all, I’ll be in the complete company of strangers, of which only a few are younger than 40, with the few that are qualifying squarely in the annoying teenager bracket.
This was not what I wanted to sign up for when I first heard about the trip in January. Bored, unemployed, and hoping to connect with someone – anyone with a pulse in my new location – I figured a noble task like rebuilding a hurricane-striken community surely called my name. This is the kind of endeavour all down-on-their luck young people should embrace, I had told myself, flaunting my own desire to do some act of charity and national aid like the kind of over-the-top perfectionist we all knew (and wanted to punch) in high school.
Well, a couple hundred dollars and a new job later — not to mention meeting the other people I’ll be spending a week with — and I’m getting cold feet. Scratch that. I’m frostbitten, and walking into that potluck the other night, taking a look at the people around me, I couldn’t help but want to start the inevitable “Do you knows…”
Do you know what I’m giving up for this? Heck, is it really even needed? Do these people even really need our help? Heck, are we even really helping them? Wouldn’t you be happier dragging your own kid into this? I mean, it’s not like Cancun isn’t going to miss them for one spring break…
If that wasn’t enough, there was a guy at the potluck (gah, I sincerely detest that word!) who insisted at playing Devil’s advocate. I don’t know what his story was exactly, but as the husband of one of the volunteers and someone who clearly had something against the Catholic church, if not religion in general, he thought it would be funny to bring Hawaiian pizza to the dinner and openly talk about how doing volunteer labor work wasn’t worth it unless he was getting paid. And so, for the third time in probably as many minutes, the voice in side my head was screaming. What. The. Hell.
I’d love to say the next thirty minutes and the dinner to follow changed my perspective. It’d be nice to think just then some fascinating moment of grace hit me as a gorgeous, 23-year old girl showed up late, revealing one member of the volunteer group I might want to bond with. But none of that happened. In fact, I left early without so much as saying goodbye. What I left with was much more important.
As I was walking out I had a great talk with our parish priest. The kind of wise young man who you’d never know was a priest had he not donned the white-collar and black shirt, Fr. Matt told it to me straight. Volunteering isn’t about me. And thinking I’m entitled to some perks because I’m working for free is the last thing someone helping out Hurricane victims should be thinking about.
It’s ironic, you know. When we’re young, we’re persuaded to “get involved” with promises of getting something in return. In high school our counselors told us volunteering would look good on our transcript, and in college, we were told it would look good on our resume to help some non-profit out. We’d be viewed as “complete” people, they told us, and when that wasn’t enough to get us off our asses, we’d be hopelessly swayed by some moral platitude about how we’d gain some appreciation or insight into ourselves for our efforts. A “good feeling,” as it were, or a perspective into the lives of others which causes us to grow in temperament or spirit. And all of it, of course, reinforced by one too many TV sitcoms.
Nowhere though, do they talk about volunteering as absolutely sucking. As being a burden to us that doesn’t yield any “wow” inspiration of enduring good feeling or come-around karma. I guess they don’t tell us it’s possible — although, given how things work out, perhaps unlikely — because they don’t want us backing out and getting cold feet. But maybe they should, because volunteering – and the fruits that come out of it – aren’t made for us, and shouldn’t be for us.
Father Matt helped me to see this. He explained to me that it doesn’t matter if all I get out of this trip is a headache and a sunburn, the point of me going down to help rebuild the area is to do some little part in making someone else’s life better. And chances are, he told me, their life is really the one that could use some help.
Clearly, my own hypocrisy was on full display here. Usually the first to admonish others for what I perceive as selfish actions, I’m just as guilty as adopting a me-first, transaction style of dealing with people and situations that highlights a spirit that is fundamentally anti-Christian. And to think I’ve been expecting God to grant me some wish of my choosing for this style of thinking!
In a week I’ll be going away for six days. In that time, I may or may not experience some revelation of service and feel-good byproduct of stepping outside my comfort zone. But if I don’t, that’s O.K. too. At the end of the week some one’s life might be a little easier or better off, and that’s what truly counts. My prayer, and my hope, on a day like today is that people around our country and our world, regardless of faith or lack thereof, find a way to embrace service for those in true need for what it is. Not always a benefit for us or out causes and political beliefs, it is charity and service always addresses a fundamental need for our world, and will never be a waste of our time and energy.