No disinterested act is possible. No matter what we do, no matter how altruistic our actions may appear, we have our own best interests at heart. We can’t help it.
The return we receive for the time, effort, love, resources–financial and other–we invest to help others is sometimes obvious, and at other times veiled or opaque. It is obvious why we go to work and to school. We receive a paycheck, a degree, and possibly elevated social standing, as well as increased self-esteem, in return.
The same, minus the paycheck, is true of volunteer work. Volunteer work or charitable work is a particularly controversial subject. In order to volunteer to help others, we must live in a stratified society, where some people do not have the basics. Everyone should have health care, housing, food, access to a good education, employment opportunities, and–unless a violent criminal–freedom to live unincarcerated. Since this is not the case, a crazy quilt patchwork of volunteers and volunteer organizations attempts to help those who are deprived of life’s basic necessities.
The disparity between those who have, and those who do not, continues to grow in the United States. Thus, to be in a position to provide charity to others, we must have, somewhere along the line profited by inequality. My grandfather was wealthy, so my father was born wealthy. Not extraordinarily wealthy by any means, but wealthy enough to attend a university, and thus to enlist in the Korean War and immediately be granted the rank of captain, and a pleasant service in New Mexico. He did not go to Korea and freeze to death, or I would not be here today. Eventually, with some help from his parents and the G.I. Bill, my parents bought a home in a safe place with good schools. We were financially strapped–Thomas’s English Muffins were the basis of many a meal–but we were not hungry and lived in a safe environment.
In many another country we would now be comfortable and saving for retirement. Instead, we eke out tuition payments to an out-of-state university. We have not put a dime into retirement savings in six years. I have placed my bet, instead, on my sons: they should be able to attend college and graduate debt-free. If not, they would be the first generation burdened by student loan debt at an unreasonable interest rate. The government profits doubly by our actions. No income is sheltered from taxes in our retirement account, and we are providing society with two graduates educated in the sciences. (Not quite yet, since one son started his university education less than a month ago!) We just hope to die young. No, I am not kidding. But it is natural, and not noble, for people to put their children’s interests ahead of their own.
Those who work to promote social justice, to convert others to their religion, to protect the environment, to risk their lives protecting the lives of others, to care for their children or aging parents have objectives for the society in which they live. They also have the resources to put their beliefs into action. One cannot participate in unpaid work when bills are unmet. The preponderance of women doing unpaid work in our schools– to cite one possibly controversial example — arguably does disservice to women, while, at the same time, promoting the interests of their children, and possibly their own social standing in their community. These women are, however, not amassing social security, pension, retirement benefits or job experience which they may later need. Meanwhile, their male peers are working in the traditional economic sphere, in which such benefits are collected and amassed. Younger and middle-aged men working in the sphere of economic power are able to capitalize on their work in many concrete ways, while younger and middle-aged women continue to work in the highly rewarding, but unpaid, volunteer sector, are not.
Are Bill and Melinda Gates saints? Certainly they are preferable to Donald Trump, who is clownish in his bombast and self-interest. They are, most would agree, “good people,” doing more for others than is strictly necessary. But having amassed their fortune, why wouldn’t they want their children to grow to adulthood in a world plagued by fewer diseases, and in which more people are grateful to the efforts of Americans?
I am now on my way to pick vegetables at our local, organic CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Farm. Not so short-sighted as to want to consume organic produce only for the sake of my own health–I do breathe the same air, drink the same water, and walk on the same earth as all other living creatures–it is more for the precious earth, to spend time outdoors, to protest all things Monsanto, and to help a small, organic farm to succeed even in hard times that I go.
And since I have my own small, organic garden, I go for inspiration. But more than inspiration–I will stick with easy crops and let the farm family struggle with managing the difficult ones–I go to be close to the earth and the food. I also go to make a small stand on the issue of division of labor. Not wanting to deprive workers of their jobs, I still want to participate, side-by-side, at getting down in the dirt. And, yes, unless I must do this in order to feed my family, and unless I must do this five-to-seven days a week, it is really only a symbolic act. Symbolic acts, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, perpetuate and reify the existing social order. So maybe I do more harm than good. I have not thrown in my lot with farmers or farm-workers, but I have a son who thinks he would like to be a farmer. My son’s interest in sustainable agriculture is a recent development, subject to change. We have participated in the same CSA farm for many years, both the good and the bad. This has been helpful to the farmer, but it has not been a disinterested act. I fear for the future of the earth, the health of my own children, all children, and future generations if the agribusiness industry continues to have its way with us.
When I make a bi-monthly pilgrimage into local fields, in good weather and bad, I am closer to the earth I love to smell and touch, and also make a small, quiet political statement, and an attempt not to become “Comfortably Numb” (Pink Floyd, 1979.)
The tomatoes we eat, and, more than anything, the flowers we pick, feed my soul. Today, together with other family members, I visited our family memorial garden. The pink cosmos, purple verbena, feathery yellow and red celosia, and globe amaranth, red, pink, and purple, now decorate the site where my father’s ashes are spread. Carefully selecting each flower in the field, sharing them with family members, and gently placing them where my father’s physical remains lie, was a powerful, loving ritual.