When doing community service doesn't make you happy
by phil on Wednesday Mar 18, 2009 10:10 PM
Purpose, purpose, purpose. This theme has been running in my mind ever since I started reading The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren.
A thought ocurred to me about purpose and religion. There seems to be a strange double-think in religion about whether or not religion is good for you, and whether or not that should matter. Rick Warren pitches a closer relationship with God by stressing how great it will feel. He says, for example:
The power of focusing can be seen in light. Diffused light has little power or impact, but you can concertate its energy by focusing it. With a magnifying glass, the rays of the sun can be focused to set grass or paper on fire. When light is focused even more as a laser beam, it can cut through steel.Wow, I think to myself. That sounds very powerful, and appeals to my desire for success and productivity. If I have purpose, then my life will be organized! But I don't think Rick Warren would want to encourage that line of thinking. He would rather say that I do it because I want to serve God.
Why do people go to Church on Sundays?
There's two purposes: the stated purpose and the effective purpose. The effective purpose, in most cases, for attending Church on Sundays is inertia. You do it because you did it last week. The stated purpose could be all sorts of things, but I imagine it to be, "It's good for my family," or "It brings me closer to God," or "It helps me get in touch."
However, it seems that the only legitimate purposes for attending Church have to be something other than self-serving ones. Your stated purpose could be, "It makes me happy," but Rick Warren wouldn't approve of this as a reason to believe in Christ.
Now, back to the title of this post. There is a fundamental thought experiment in philosophy: Why shouldn't you spend all your time helping the kids in Africa?
One response I heard is, "Would you have rather have it that Socrates spent his time helping the slaves rather than creating his life's work?"
That's kind of an unfair argument because not all of us are going to be as important as Socrates.
But really, why shouldn't we all be doing more community service?
I decided once, "Hey, my life needs purpose" and I signed up for a bunch of community service. I found myself terribly bored, even depressed, like I was wasting my time. While I knew on one level that I was helping people, I could not ignore how sick it was making me. I eventually had to throw my hands up and quit.
Looking back now, I understand that this was a conflict of purpose. Because if I asked myself, "What is my primary motivation," I would have answered, "To make my life more meaningful." In other words, I was trying to use service as a way to get an emotional upper.
Now, I'm starting to think that you'll never get the emotional benefits of doing something meaningful if you don't actually care about what you're helping with. Your motivation can't be, "Well I need a kick." It's got to be, "I want to help these people."
So, long story short, I've come up with this principle:
Cross-posted on Drunk Log