Why do we volunteer? We want to help. We want to leave the world in a better place than we found it. We want to matter. Sometimes, we want to heal. I’ve explored the many ways volunteering helps teach a person to be a global citizen, and the many ways it enriches the spirit: helping others, seeing your work improve lives, seeing yourself through the eyes of people from vastly different worlds, feeling the connection we all share. But I haven’t explored how we can use volunteering to find ourselves—to put our pain and suffering in perspective, to get outside our own heads, and to process grief.
Yesterday, I came across Ken Budd in The New York Times. An accomplished journalist and loving son who used volunteering to heal after the loss of his father. His memoir, The Voluntourist, chronicles his experience traveling the world as a volunteer in China, Ecuador, Palestine, and Kenya. His story is sad and moving and true. We all suffer loss. We all, eventually, must face the loss of our parents. Most of us suffer through those losses somewhat selfishly—with introspection, self-doubt, and self-pity—and who can blame us? Losing a parent is one of the seminal experiences of life, and it hits each person differently. I don’t think it’s a typical first inclination to transform that grief into positive work, but it should be. Grieving alone doesn’t do any good. It doesn’t help the griever. It’s a black hole, absorbing enjoyment and health. Ken Budd managed to see beyond the grief, to the life.
I can’t imagine how I will handle the loss of my parents. The thought of it sends me into a panic. Even though I’m a grown woman, I still rely on them for comfort, support, and guidance. They are such an important part of my life, I think losing them will force me to face my own mortality and to re-live every mistake, every success, every harsh word, and every loving moment. I can easily imagine collapsing in on myself, closing off, shutting down. I think the only way out of that is to have a plan, to channel the pain and loss, to follow Ken Budd’s fine example.
I think it’s only a matter of time before the grief counselors of the world embrace voluntourism as a technique for healing. It makes so much sense: connecting, every day, with people who need you. It’s a reason to feel important, to get up in the morning, and to embrace life again. Learn more about Ken on the Voluntourism.org webcast.