Whether to enjoy serving others

Clara likes to tell the story of when I confessed to her that I didn’t like any vegetables. “That’s not true,” she said, “I’ve seen you enjoy carrots, broccoli, green beans, corn, peppers…” At which point I interjected, “But those don’t count as vegetables—they taste good!” Somehow in my mind, eating vegetables was synonymous with eating virtuously, and eating virtuously with eating things you don’t like that are good for you. Hence any healthy food I actually enjoyed could not be a vegetable.

I am sensing that I have been caught in a similar trap about my work, and maybe you can help me out of it.

When people describe their experience serving others, they often mention how much it has benefited their own lives as well. Lots of famous people agree:

“Remember that the happiest people are not those getting more, but those giving more.” ― H. Jackson Brown Jr.

“To ease another’s heartache is to forget one’s own.” ― Abraham Lincoln

“The best antidote I know for worry is work. The best cure for weariness is the challenge of helping someone who is even more tired. One of the great ironies of life is this: He or she who serves almost always benefits more than he or she who is served.” — Gordon B. Hinckley

“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.” ― Barack Obama

“If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.” — Booker T. Washington

But I always think, the really virtuous people are the ones who do the jobs that don’t give them the good feelings. The ones who help in ways that aren’t personally rewarding or enjoyable. So when our church needed volunteers to learn to run the soundboard, I signed up. I didn’t think it would be fun, but no one else was responding, so I took the plunge.

And it was terrible. I hated the job and began to dread going to church. I’d come home angry at myself for continuing to put myself through it. I routinely got thanks and words of appreciation from some kind people who knew what the job involved, but that didn’t make it better, it just kept me from quitting. Maybe I made a difference for that time that I was helping, but now I feel burnt out and unlikely to volunteer again in the future, unless it’s for something I know I’ll like doing.

So here’s the trap: On the one hand, isn’t it a little selfish to help others in only those ways that you find personally rewarding? But on the other hand, volunteering for draining activities is counterproductive if it means you stop doing it.

So here’s the conversation I’m having with myself to try to escape the trap:

Suggestion: The opposite of selfishness is not masochism, it’s selflessness, not taking yourself into account when you act on behalf of others. Enjoying your service is a bonus, not a sign that you’re doing it wrong. You don’t have feel guilty about enjoying the good that you’re doing, just like it’s not a problem if you enjoy your vegetables.

Problem: Some vegetables aren’t tasty and I should eat them anyway if I want to have a varied diet. Some jobs aren’t fun but need to be done anyway, and if everybody only did what they liked that wouldn’t happen.

Suggestion: I tend to think of jobs as being objectively pleasant or unpleasant, but that’s not true. Not everyone enjoys the same kinds of service, so it’s better if people do what they enjoy and leave what they don’t for someone else. Maybe the fact that I hated my electronics lab in college should have clued me in that I’d be a poor fit for sound guy.

Problem: Just because people don’t agree completely doesn’t mean there isn’t substantial overlap. It’s reasonable to expect there to be a shortage of help for the jobs people don’t want to do, and if that’s where your time is best spent it doesn’t matter if you find it loathsome.

Suggestion: Sometimes the choice is not between volunteering in a way that you enjoy and volunteering in a way you don’t, it’s between volunteering in a way you enjoy and not volunteering at all. Perhaps helping out in some fun way can be like a gateway vegetable that makes you more amenable to other, less fun activities later?

Problem: What if it never does? What if I never learn to like mushrooms, and so never eat them? It’s important to me that I’m doing as much good as I can with the work I do, and this seems like a copout to let me just keep doing what I like.

Care to help me out? Are you ever glad you’ve done jobs that didn’t benefit you in any way? How do you keep from burning out?


2 thoughts on “Whether to enjoy serving others

  1. Denying your own emotional needs can lead to burnout, I think. That is why the quotation is “Love your neighbour as yourself” and not “more than yourself”. Recognizing your own boundaries and being assertive about them is healthy and allows you to carry on helping others (in my opinion, anyway).

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