Monday, July 3, 2017

Call Me a Thwarted Altruist

I don’t do volunteer work primarily to benefit others, but rather to try to feel good about myself, and to feel purposeful, feelings of purposelessness having tormented me throughout this century, as my every attempt to build an audience sputters and dies. Helping others gives me fleeting feelings of being a worthwhile person.

In Los Angeles, I helped Latinos, Africans, and Koreans with their English as a volunteer for the Los Angeles Public Library’s adult literacy program, and loved doing so. But then the program’s administrators got wind of the fact that, because I find coffee shops too noisy and full of distractions, and am loath to distract others in libraries, I was inviting my students up to my apartment. I was huffily advised that my services were no longer required.

I re-relocated to the UK and volunteered for everything in sight. I was going to offer a teen acting workshop at a community centre in a disadvantaged neck of the SW London woods, but it turned out the centre’s far greater interest was in my designing their annual report. I know from LA that people appreciate pro bono design work to exactly the same extent they pay you for it. I tutored teens at a state secondary school in Shepherds Bush, but was spending three hours travelling back and forth, and, frankly, didn’t find the boys’ yawning in my face for an hour per session terribly fulfilling. I volunteered for a suicide prevention hotline, imagining that my own experience of suicidal despair made me a splendid candidate for the job, only to discover first that you were allowed only to murmur something neutral and very vaguely supportive, like “I understand”, and that you weren’t allowed to do even that without extensive training. If the training were going to be as boring as the orientation meeting, I probably wasn't going to live through it to try, ultra-passively, to keep others alive.

The problem is that I passionately hate training. Two weeks ago, I went for a full day of training for a programme that benefits former offenders, as they’re called here, who’ve just completed their prison sentences, and are trying to re-integrate into the society at large. It was exactly what I’d expected — and dreaded. Early on, we were divided into teams, each of which was given a huge piece of paper on which to write a definition of, for instance, mentoring. I suggested “teaching and guiding”, but my teammate (and, yes, I am paraphrasing) preferred “teaching and guiding someone so they make good life choices and stay out of trouble because it’s easy for ex-offenders to revert to earlier patterns of behaviour that aren’t good for them and isn’t good for the community”. There there followed an extended group consideration of our various definitions, during which I was acutely aware of precious hours of my golden years being irretrievably lost.

There was, to be fair, a moment I enjoyed. As a group, we compiled a list of different kinds of physical abuse, one of which was drowning. (Drowning someone does indeed strike me as quintessentially abusive.) Then we had to divide up into little teams again, and make lists of signs of the different kinds of abuse. After my teammates and I had noted all the obvious ones, like bruises, welts, cuts, and so on, I proposed “bloated waterlogged corpse,” which I thought an unmistakable indication of someone having drowned. When the snooty young woman who’d appointed herself our little team’s spokesperson had to read that out, I managed to remain silent, but was unmistakably shaking with laughter. I don’t think the two instructors got the joke, or appreciated my amusedness.  
We learned that if our mentees couldn’t afford busfare to our meetings, it was strictly forbidden for us to transfer a few quid into their accounts, as our mentees would then be able, if they were really clever and devious, to ascertain our surnames and addresses, and cause all manner of trouble for the programme as a whole. I wondered aloud why the presumption was that the beneficiaries of our altruism would turn us so awfully. The two instructors exchanged a look that said, “Well, I don’t think we’ll be using this guy.” How dare I challenge their catastrophic expectations.

A long day, in not-pleasant and not-nearby Kings Cross, down the drain. And I’m still not helping anybody.  

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