Posted by Sheila Connolly

I'm sitting here feeling guilty because I had planned/hoped/promised to go somewhere and do something this afternoon, and instead I'm sitting at my desk working. I'm doing research for my next book, which involves lovely things like poisons and symptoms of poisoning, and what these poisons are used for (when not to kill someone), and how quickly they act. Fun way to spend an afternoon, no?

The thing is, the event I'm not attending was supposed to be fun, so the only person I'm depriving is myself (unless I'm depriving the other attendees of the pleasure of my company?). I wanted to go. So why did I decide not to go? It's snowing.

Pish tosh. You live in New England, you should be used to a little snow. Well, I am. I just don't choose to drive in it, unless it's an emergency. And it's Sunday, as I write, and nobody's out plowing. Okay, it's a stupid excuse, and now I feel guilty for not doing something I said I was going to do, even if the only person I said it to was me.

But this particular episode aside, I feel guilty a lot of the time. There are just too many things to do, and guess what: much of the time they don't get done, or at least not as well as they should be done. I'm a rational, responsible person, so I make lists, and I make decisions about what is most important and should be done first. The problem is, other people don't agree with me. They don't buy into my internal timetable or my priority list because they have their own, and they want what they want RIGHT NOW! And they want to know, WHY ARE YOU DOING THAT? WHY AREN'T YOU DOING THIS? And I get tired of being yelled at, because most of these things I volunteered to do, on my own time, without compensation, and now the people I volunteered to help are yelling at me.

When I worked full time, at a job that required pantyhose, I also volunteered for a variety of things–my daughter's PTA, my local college alumnae group, my town's political committee. I came to respect the very real and very important role that volunteers play in any community, however you choose to define that. It's a grey area, because the time and effort involved are not easily tracked, so we aren't always aware of how much of it goes on. And that's largely because the people don't get paid, except possibly with moral satisfaction (when people aren't yelling at them).

Not long ago I was chatting with a college classmate. Back when we were in college, she and her family were never short of money (while I was a scholarship kid). When she graduated, she worked for a time (a New York City job with pantyhose!), invested wisely, and pared down her lifestyle so that she would not have to work. Instead she volunteered for community projects. She was and is smart and capable, and I'm sure she does a good job. But when we were talking, she complained that nobody treated her with respect, because she was "just" a volunteer.

So what is wrong with this picture? Volunteers are the grease that keeps the cogs of our society turning. Remove them from the social equation (as the rise of two-income families has done), and a lot of things don't happen any more, and a lot of local institutions suffer for it. And so do we.

Our worth should not be measured in dollars and cents. It should be measured by our contribution to the world. And I refuse to feel guilty about what I'm doing or not doing, because I do try to give something back. (And please don't yell at me.)

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