When I was a student, sharing a flat, first in Bristol and then on the Fulham/Chelsea border, I had this thing about kitchen floors. I had to keep them clean. Get down on my hands and knees and wash them. My flatmates thought me odd at first, then stupid and then annoying because my hygiene fixation made them feel guilty. And while I got the first two responses – I agreed with them – I didn’t get the last response. It was me who wanted to keep the kitchen clean, not them. It took me a long time to work out why.
Roll the calendar forward. For years, while building a career, I had time for work, for the family (but not enough) and for some favoured past times (probably too much). I didn’t find space to put something back. Not until the later years when I became involved in pro bono work. So when I chucked in the legal towel post Olympics I thought I would volunteer more.
Amongst other things I wanted to help young people; they seem most deserving. I volunteered with the Streatham Youth and Community Trust (https://twitter.com/StreathamSYCT)/(http://www.syct.org.uk/). Twice a week and now as chair of the trustees. Wednesday we had a brilliant fund raiser at the Hideaway café in Streatham, where Russell Howard, Tiffany Stephenson and Andy Zaltzman gave their time for nothing. The place was buzzing and we made a goodly sum.
People I know turned up; quite a few shook me by the hand, offering up ‘well-done’s’ and ‘good on you’s’. And you could see one or two of them feeling a touch guilty that it wasn’t them in my shoes.
Then Tiffany, during her set, said something along the lines of ‘Course, you know I’m a hero, doing this gig for free’ and she milked the applause that poured down on her. People well understood her irony.
And it set me thinking. About me and volunteering. Really, why do I do it? Because, like with the kitchen floor, it’s selfish. I do it because, in truth, I want the pat on the back. or the implicit sense that I’m a little better because of it. The good side of that feeling is that I am a better person; the bad side is that I am better than them. You can’t really have one without something of the other. I’m a carrot man, you see. I deal with criticism ok; I even react well to it, these days compared to when I was a kid. But give me some praise and I’m flying. Even if you don’t give it to me, I know you want to.
It’s easy for me – I can afford, just now, to volunteer. I’m not one of the youth workers or the paid staff who work ridiculously hard and are paid peanuts relative to the City and to many other jobs because it’s for a charity and money is inevitably tight. Nor am I one of those who need to help, the deprived children, the abused, the uncared.
The fact is that I enjoy it; I get a buzz from it. So it’s a selfish thing. I need to do it; like I need to clean the kitchen floor. So really, it’s me who should feel guilty. Not my flatmates of old, not those who patted me on the back.
I’m pretty sure Cameron wasn’t thinking along these lines when he introduced his Big Society and I don’t think it would work if he did. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t really taken off. Other’s benefit from my efforts – of course they do – that’s the point but it’s a weird sort of Stockholm syndrome, this thing I have. I don’t do it for the recipients of my time, not really. Because if I did and they weren’t overtly grateful then I could resent them.
I do it for me. And I can’t be the only one. Tiffany makes her point well, mocking those who volunteer and preen. The stars who turn up to wave because it’s good for promotional reasons – they will get slammed. The Royals, rolled out as patron of this or supporter of that, are sneered at for their ‘how far did you come’ and ‘have your been waiting long?’ ideas of conversation with the massed ranks of waiting groupies.
At least there’s an honesty in this. The celebs have an agenda, but do some good while they are at it; the symbiosis is plain and upfront. The Royals are born to it, or marry into it (how mad is that?). Not their choice. People don’t feel any guilt that it’s them who are there, giving their time.
But the likes of me, those pure volunteers who nobly give up their time? We get a load of unwarranted praise because we are doing something for nothing. The praise sort of eases the guilt. It’s better to give than to receive, or so the cliché has it. In truth it is easier to give than to receive. Whether it’s time or praise.
So the message is, if you’ve read this far, to keep on giving, but give well and give wisely; especially to the SYCT, but any good cause really. And if you feel something, some twinge of unwarranted admiration, suppress it and give money and praise where it’s most needed. There’s nothing special in it, this volunteering caper for those that can do it and who, like me, get bundles from it; it’s just the way we are made and we can no more stop washing floors as we can fly a Hippogriff.