Giving and Perceiving

I’ve always been a joiner.

Not sure why. I don’t feel much of a religious call to service or an obligation to volunteer. But I’ve long been a joiner of service groups. On some level, I do feel like these groups fill a need. On another, I think we’re often just bashing our heads against the wall or filling a bucket with such small drops as to be negligible. Arguably I do it for the social interaction: I like getting to know the people involved and working with them on projects. In many ways I believe the only true charity is anonymous charity — when you give and no one knows that you have. Volunteering in a service group seems to me so full of ostentatious giving that it can’t really count as true service.

This reminds me of a study on vampire bats I read a while back. (I know — you were thinking the same thing, right?) The study found that vampire bats who were fortunate enough to feed on a given night would share blood with bats in the roost that weren’t able to feed. It’s a crucial bit of sharing because their metabolisms are so high that the bats can’t go more than a couple of nights without feeding or they’ll die. The study pondered if this was an example of true altruism. In general, it’s thought that altruism does not exist in nature. Most animal behavior is driven by perpetuation of the indivual or, more precisely, the individual’s reproductive potential. The researchers attempted to determine if the donors gave blood only to close relatives, which didn’t seem to be the case. Eventually they concluded that perhaps the behavior was to perpetuate the entire colony.

An online friend of mine told me that I’m a really sweet person. This is noteworthy because I can’t recall anyone who knows me in person who’s called me sweet. One friend told me I have so many edges that I’m practically a cube. But the gal who called me sweet said so because I read her work and gave her writing advice. And because I continue to read and give feedback. To me, this isn’t sweet. I certainly don’t always tell her nice things about what she’s written. She says that she’s grateful that I take the time. I think, well, I can help, so I do.

And it doesn’t hurt.

Maybe that’s part of my edge: I’m just not into giving until it hurts. If I can give, I will. If I don’t have the time or the energy, I say no. More often I say “later.” This is self-protection. Lately, a couple of people in volunteer organizations I belong to have been unhappy with me that they’re farther down on my list of things to do. Worse, they’ve begun to harangue me about it. Now, I have a lot of deadlines to manage and I like to think I’m reasonably good at it. I have a pretty simple approach: I work on what is due the soonest. Logical of me. I also work on the stuff I’m paid to do first. Mercenary of me perhaps. I’m also easily seduced by the more fun things, so they tend to work their way up in priority ahead of their time. Frivolous of me, I’ll admit.

The thing is, I find I really hate being pressured to do something I volunteered to help with in the first place, especially if I don’t see the fire. Everyone has their comfort zones, I know. There are people in this world who panic if a deadline is a week away. I’m one of those who slides the deliverable into the email five minutes before COB Eastern Time on some occasions. When I’m being paid, I do things their way — I figure that’s part of the deal. But when I’m giving, I find my altruism dries up if I feel forced.

Maybe that’s how it works for the bats, too.

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