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Lions Roar : November 2012
I STOOD AT A WHITEBOARD in the Time-Life cafeteria, which at 6 p.m. smelled like a mix of disinfectant and slightly spoiled milk. My adult literacy students—the three who had shown up—sat at vinyl-covered lunch tables with their essays. “Would anyone like to read their piece?” I asked. All three stared at the floor, still as granite. Apparently, this week’s topic, “My favorite pastime,” had failed to inspire. “Ramon?” I said, my voice slightly pleading. A heavyset His- panic man, Ramon usually cooperated when called on. But tonight he jolted, as if suddenly awakened, and shook his head. The other students, two young women I’d never seen before, also declined. “Okay, how about we write one together,” I suggested. “Who would like to tell us about their favorite pastime?” More blank stares. I sighed and passed out a worksheet on prepositional phrases. A few minutes later, Ramon placed his head against the wall and began snoring softly. This was not what I had expected. Volunteer work was sup- posed to make me happier and more fulfilled. I knew this because I had written many articles proclaiming the psychological bene- fits of donating one’s time, citing research that showed that peo- ple who did so enjoyed better health, stronger relationships, and higher overall well-being than those who did not. My Buddhist studies at the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York also touted the benefits of selflessness, and I had often heard teachers there repeat Sakyong Mipham’s famous quote, “If you want to be miserable, think of yourself. If you want to be happy, think of others.” And yet, each week I began my volunteer teaching job with a heavy heart. It was definitely not bringing me greater joy or deeper meaning. It was a job—a job I didn’t get paid for. Granted, not every class was as sluggish as tonight’s, when the Is This Worth It? SARA ECKEL discovers that volunteering isn’t about getting back more than you give. It’s just about giving. ILLUSTRATIONBYKIMROSEN SARA ECKEL is the author of a forthcoming book about single peo- ple, to be published by Perigee, an imprint of Penguin books. She lives in Ulster County, New York. SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2012 27