Friday, 11 November 2011 00:00
Imagine living in a community that has no churches, charities, museums, sports leagues, art galleries, historical societies, fraternal organizations, youth centers, or senior citizens services. Hard to imagine except in the worse inner-city slum or in some rural backwoods? Not really. These institutions depend on volunteers to keep their doors open and fewer and fewer people volunteer.
In a society where people watch a few hours of TV a night, spend hours Facebooking people they’ve not seen in 20 years about what they had for lunch, and sufficiently wired into computer games in their cell phone to resemble the autistic in their disconnection with the rest of the world, it’s difficult to get people to donate a few hours a month in the community. (I’ll doubtless receive flack about the autistic comparison, but I have a profoundly autistic nephew. It kills me that he’ll never hold a job, enjoy the eloquence of literature, get married, or wonder at scientific discovery. Yet in many ways, those who chose to isolate themselves from the rest of their community out of apathy are no less tragic).
I’m active in several nonprofit organizations. I volunteer many hours a month notwithstanding the fact that I work two jobs, have a kindergartner to raise, and struggle with energy-draining chronic illness that’ll probably grace a death certificate before my daughter sees her little ones off to kindergarten. I do this even though most of the proverbial 99 percent are better off financially. (Let’s just say that loss of employment opportunities to cheap foreign labor and an education that renders one “overqualified” is not academic exercises to me; that at almost two score and 10 I earn less than I did at 29).
I do this because I believe service to others is what makes life meaningful. I do this because I don’t believe that God and/or evolution put us on earth to worship stupid athletes, idolize shallow pop culture celebrities, hoard gadgets, or build our lives around television programs, professional sports teams, and consumer goods.
I don’t define “the good life” by the individual’s frustrating and oftentimes futile endeavor to obtain a sprawling air-conditioned house with built-in pool, and a garage too cramped with store-bought items to shelter the family’s three SUVs. I do it, also, to teach my daughter that when we dedicate ourselves to remembering and preserving the accomplishments of those who came before us, we are doing something with our lives that’ll be worth remembering and preserving by those who come after us.
The relationship between volunteerism and the stability and prosperity of a community has been well documented by professional sociologists and historians as well as by those amateurs writing about their own communities. “The new residents of Levittown,” Lynne Matarrese wrote in The History of Levittown, New York, “were so desirous of putting down roots and acquiring some semblance of culture that more than 50 clubs and organizations were formed in Levittown between 1947 and 1951”. And in his Images of America: Hicksville, Richard Evers observed, “Athletic team and community club membership has enriched Hicksville’s life. Our understanding of democracy stems from our work on committees, volunteerism, and team sportsmanship, which are large parts of the American creed.”
Without volunteerism and the institutions it sustains, society becomes a cultural and spiritual wasteland and such wastelands leave only decadence and dysfunction. That’s not the America that was described in the 1840s as “a nation of joiners.” But maybe it’s America in 2011. I used to think civic groups, organizations, and societies were the pillars of the community. Now I’m beginning to wonder if they are not but oases in a desert of sterile sand. Have we reached the point-of-no-return?