To wit--there is this older gentleman who works the southern corner of the IS 40/64 exit ramp at Grand Avenue during the afternoon rush hour. Not too long ago, St. Louis was under a severe heat wave warning (w/ temperatures exceeding 100 degrees) for the better part of a week. During that time, I took to bringing this unfortunate elderly man cold water bottles from our office fridge, because I could hardly bear to watch him day in and day out sweating profusely in the full sun. I would wait for him to shuffle past my car, then I would leave the water near his army duffel bag when the traffic light turned green. Needless to say, I very much enjoyed being his water fairy for that heat wave.
Last week, on the same corner, I emptied my brimming change purse (theoretically my Clayton parking meter change) into a destitute older woman's grateful hands. I've never seen a bigger grin than the one on her face as her fingers filled and filled with quarters. After heartily blessing me, she walked on. I think my witnessing that ginormous grin whetted my appetite for an even more expansive display of gratitude. (I'm not sure if this makes me a megalomaniac, but it seems quite likely.)
Sunday afternoon, I gave a man who approached me on Ted Drews' parking lot a $10 bill before he could even offer me a complete story of woe. He was so sincerely grateful for the gift that he promptly wrapped me in an all-consuming, bear hug, then pulled quickly away and self-consciously apologized for his sweatiness; I assured him that I was sweaty, too, and that it was no big deal. He then smiled warmly at me and asked that God bless me and my family, before kindly smiling at my sister and walking away.
I seem to be hopelessly enamored with the prospect of earning others' good graces and, consequently, I'll freely give nearly anyone what they ask of me. Over the course of five recent work days, I awakened nearly two hours earlier than I would normally, due to the fact that a friend and co-worker recently totaled her car and desperately needed a ride to work (she opens the office, so we had to arrive promptly). Please understand that I--a tried and true, insomniatic, night owl--volunteered for less sleep exclusively b/c I wanted to be my friend's beloved heroine.
Similarly, this is how I came to volunteer at Wild Bird Rehab. When Diane plaintively asked me (with dark circles underlying her big sympathetic eyes), "Do you have time to volunteer? We really need the help right now," I was veritable putty in her hands. Soon I was faithfully spending my Friday nights (sometimes into the early morning hours) performing hot, filthy, back-breaking work and deriving much pleasure from this humble practice. I felt good about myself and about how I was spending my free time. I couldn't fathom abandoning these wild creatures for a single night out at the bar - to do so would leave me cheating myself out of something far more valuable than simple debauchery.
I wish I were a gifted enough writer to adequately express what it feels like to go on an altruistic giving binge. The effect is so powerful, so concrete, so immovable that the experience is downright radical. When I began volunteering at WBR my mood shifted completely. I think the work actually lifted me out of a clinical depression and there is a good deal of evidence to support this contention.
Specifically, the existential psychology (born out of the philosophical and aesthetic movements of the same name) paradigm suggests that people suffer from mental issues as a consequence of the problems that arise out of the realization that humans endure an essentially meaningless existence. Hence, in order to cure people of their ills, one must help them to work through these problems of meaning. For me, volunteering at WBR and doing kind things for the people around me (everyone from strangers to intimates) helps to infuse my life with tangible meaning.
Further, it has been suggested by positive psychologists (although, the concept goes back as far as Greek philosophy) that the highest pleasures in life are those built around giving back to others and one's community. I am a living example of the effectiveness of this approach and I encourage anyone reading this who suffers from depression arising out of such crises of meaning to emulate me. Even if you obtain no benefit for yourself, you will be hugely helping others.
la Contra Yogini
*Although, lowered windows in summer isn't exclusively negative - I'm also fully present to the joy of school children playing, the musicality of sweet bird songs, and the brightly green scent of cut grass.