Never Volunteer for Anything

My father always told me to never volunteer for anything.

This was something of a joke from the man who constantly found himself volunteering to build set pieces and school desks. Who led class field trips to lay track and who poured hours of (often unpaid) effort into historical interpretation.

Never volunteer for anything.

When I say this to other people, they often look aghast. Sometimes just confused. “Why would your father tell you such a thing?” they ask, as if afraid of what other dark life lessons might spring out.

Well. The wording of this has always been very precise for me. It’s not like he told me to never do something to benefit some else. Simply, never volunteer for anything.

It’s actually pretty good advice.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch because you’ll always have to pay for that lunch one way or another. With time if not with money.

Volunteering is not so different. You can never really do something for free, because even if you don’t get paid for your trouble, at the end of the day, it’ll still be something of a trouble.

My father grew up in the world of theater, where volunteering for something meant being the rube to raise his hand when the magician asks for some one from the audience. You may think you want to be that person, but really…you don’t want to be that person. You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into when you shoot that arm into the sky.

Never volunteer for anything.

Perhaps this is why I find the concept of “public work” so appealing. Because working in the community is work. It’s a whole lot more than stepping up to the stage for a moment in the spotlight. Though it’s just as likely once you get there you’ll discover you just agreed to get sawed in half.

Never volunteer for anything means to always accept the cost of everything. It’s no free ride you’re giving away, it’s time, energy, and whole lot of effort.

And that work is worth it. There’s so much wrong with our lives, our communities, and our world. Or perhaps, more optimistically, so much opportunity for improvement. There is unspeakable injustice and shocking events and entrenched idiocy. And all of us must dedicate real time, energy, and effort in tackling those deep issues.

So never volunteer for anything. You may not get paid, but at the end of the day – the work is worth it.

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