one little word: GIVE in April

Rather than making resolutions this year, I chose one little word for 2013 - a way to set my broad intention and create a guide for my path as I meander through a new year. I chose the word GIVE, and you can read more about that process here. At the beginning of each month I'll look back on the previous month and share with you how the one little word has been working in my life.

I'm amazed how thoroughly this one little word - just four letters - is affecting the lens through which I see my journey this year.  And it's not always this sublime experience of blissfully giving of myself. It continues to bring challenges and opportunities for growth. These past few months, I've been tangled in knots over one piece of it.  Even now, I have trouble writing this post - it has taken me the whole week to get it out.  I feel, in some ways, ashamed of what I'm sharing.  And yet, I'm going to share because I wonder if there aren't others out there like me and if we might encourage each other.

When I started the year, I knew that one way I wanted to give was through volunteering.

So I started looking into possible volunteer opportunities, and one jumped out at me right away - working with a group called Diversity Rocks in Burlington.  It's a youth group that's made up of middle and high schoolers who are part of a growing refugee community in the Burlington area.  I had a friend who volunteered with them, and I was drawn to the group not only because I was interested in working with kids but also because I was excited about engaging with a more diverse population than I interact with on an everyday basis here in Vermont.

I went to a few of the youth group meetings, and I liked the kids a lot.  I loved hearing their perspective on things.  I liked watching them interact with each other - the incessant giggling, the little spats, the posturing.  I felt lighter when I was with them.  And I thought the group was serving a great purpose - a place where a diverse group of kids could come together to share experiences, encourage and support each other.  One of my first times there, we discussed college opportunities in a session designed to encourage the kids to view college as a real possibility for them.  An older member of the refugee community, who came to Burlington as a high schooler before Diversity Rocks began, told his story of studying every waking moment to try to learn English, then working two jobs so he could pay for community college to improve his test scores so he could land a soccer scholarship to a local college. I was awed and humbled by how little he took for granted, by how committed he was to doing whatever he had to do to get what he wanted.  He's still working six days a week and planning to go for a Masters degree.  The members of the youth group worshipped him.  So did I.

There was just one problem.  The group meets on Friday nights from 6:30-8:30.  Volunteers help drive the kids to and from meetings, so that often meant I was out until 9:30 or 10:00. Of course, that doesn't sound like that big of a deal.  But I was struggling with feeling upset about missing Friday evenings with my wife.  I work a cushy state job with boundaried hours, but she works for a law firm. Many weeks that means I rarely see her for any substantial length of time during the week. Without either of us ever saying it, Friday nights became kind of sacred for us.  It was our opportunity to reconnect after a week of busy nights.  Saturdays were filled with errand-running; Sundays she was often back at the office.  But Friday nights we kept just for us.

Until I started volunteering with Diversity Rocks.  I didn't do it every Friday night, but I was trying to make it every other Friday night.  And I kept finding that I was resentful.  I wanted to be at home reconnecting with my wife. I missed her.

I liked what I was doing with the kids.  I just didn't want to be doing it right then.  And every time I felt resentment, the very next emotion was guilt.  How could I be resentful?  Wasn't I the one who wanted to volunteer?  Hadn't I heard how hard that young man worked for everything he got?  Hadn't I heard how he took nothing for granted?  How could I be resentful about spending a few hours on a Friday night with fun kids?  Could I not even give that to a worthy cause?

I spent a few months of Fridays in this resentment-guilt loop, and every time I thought about giving up and doing some other sort of volunteering, I gave myself a stern talking-to about what it means to give of oneself and how it requires sacrifice and how I needed to stop being so selfish.  But the talking-to wasn't working.  My ambivalence kept me from really committing to the group, and I just found myself at home on Friday nights with my wife but feeling bad about myself. 

I'm not sure that I didn't - or don't - need that talking-to.  I still feel ashamed of my resentment, of my inability to sacrifice.  I still feel bad that I'm not going on Friday nights.  But focusing on that shame froze me in place.  Once I realized that the shame wasn't working to make me a better volunteer or a more giving person - that it, in fact, involved an enormous amount of self-focused time and energy, I set it aside as best I could and set out to find another volunteering opportunity.  This one is as a mentor through Spectrum Youth & Family Services in Burlington.  I'll spend one-on-one time with a middle schooler who could use an adult friend.  We'll plan events and activities that my mentee is interested in, and we schedule our meetings at times that work for us.  They've set me up with a 7th grade girl, and I'm excited to begin getting to know her.

After writing all of this, I think maybe the key to meaningful giving is meeting yourself where you are.  You might do amazing things, but if you're doing them filled with resentment, then someone's getting hurt.  You, or the people you're "giving" yourself to, or the people you love.  Eventually that resentment seeps into the giving act itself.  And that's rarely pretty. 

I truly believe that we all have something of value to provide to the world - something special that we can really give ourselves over to.  But if we get stuck thinking that we have to provide exactly this or in exactly that way, then we might end up not giving at all.  We might just walk away.  Maybe one day I'll be ready to give my Friday nights to an awesome youth group.  Maybe not. 

In the meantime, I keep remembering a phrase that I learned one of the first times I visited Burlington.  We were staying with friends who live in a group house, and I was doing a load of dishes after a big potluck.  One friend came into the kitchen and asked me if I really wanted to be doing the dishes.  I wasn't sure what she meant because who ever really wants to do be doing the dishes?  But she explained that she didn't want me washing the dishes because I thought I should.  I could wash the dishes only if I was washing from a place of joy, if I was giving joyfully.  I washed them that afternoon because I was so happy to be there, beaming from a morning of singing and meeting amazing people, because I was overflowing with gratitude for haivng been welcomed into such a warm place.

I've giggled about the interaction on occasion afterwards because in my house, if we only washed dishes when we were doing it from a place of joy, we wouldn't be able to walk into the kitchen.  But the memory keeps coming up again as I've thought through my volunteering struggles.  I want to throw my heart into volunteering.  I want to give the best, most loving parts of myself  And goodness knows, there are enough people and issues out there that we could all find some place where we could give joyfully.

I hope I've found mine.

A look back:
one little word in March
one little word in February
one little word in January