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.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a biology student. I volunteer with a wildlife conservation organization in my area and spend a lot of time with biologists in the field. A few weeks ago I was chatting with a career biologist—a man who has spent the past thirty years working with endangered species. Somehow the topic of climate change came up, and I was flabbergasted to discover that he doesn’t believe in it, as if it weren’t the overwhelming scientific consensus. It illustrated something I’ve long understood: that a person’s political views (he is a staunch conservative) can dramatically affect his opinions, even when he should know better. None of us wants climate change to be real. We all want to cling to a memory of a time when we weren’t so profoundly afraid for our planet.
When I was 17, fresh out of high school and raring to go, Costa Rica was just one of about 50 different countries I wanted to visit. I grew up in a privileged suburb of Boston and was expected to head off to college alongside the rest of my graduating class. At the time, it wasn’t quite as fashionable to spend a year abroad. It was the kind of choice kids made who hadn’t applied to college, couldn’t pay for it, or otherwise didn’t have much direction. Even though I lived in a fancy suburb, my family had fallen on some tough times and I suddenly found myself in the “couldn’t pay for it” college category. I look back now and can’t understand how anyone pays for college but at the time it was a real blow. After busting my hump for four years with a singular focus—making high honor roll every semester, doing a bazillion extra-curriculars, and then getting into my top choice school—I was piping mad that money was holding me back. I was completely unable to put my situation in perspective. Never mind the millions of children in the world who get zero education, I deserved college. It was my right!