Serving one’s community benefits the individual and the whole

There’s an old maxim that if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.

  • Wednesday, January 14, 2009 7:00am
  • Opinion


For The Beachcomber

There’s an old maxim that if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.

I think that’s unfair to busy people. My life has always been governed by the notion that if you want something done, you do it yourself.

People around me love that; here’s a sap who opens her mouth and just says, “How about I do that?” Some have hinted I’m a control freak. I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. I’m just happier when I’m busy.

Busy is a relative concept, a catchall word that tries to explain the way we consume hours extraneous to work, sleep and meals in our lives.

Some people are busy watching “must-see TV.” Others are busy working out at the gym every day or pursuing seasonal sports with a vengeance. Some people are busy knitting a new Fair Isle sweater. Some people are busy in their gardens; some are busy being workaholics.

In a country founded on the principle of the right of individual pursuit of happiness, our culture has perfected incalculable ways for people to spend time pursuing their bliss. At the end of all that pursuing, are we truly happy? Maybe, maybe not.

When I try to assign a value to all the busy-ness in my life, I’m transported back to college and a long conversation I once had with my dad.

We were on the phone, me slunk to the floor in the phone booth at my sorority, Dad sitting in a Boise hotel room as a function of his latest exercise in community service — an appointment by the governor to finish out the term of a state representative who had died in a plane crash.

We were on the phone because he wanted to talk me out of a marriage I was planning, and because I didn’t want to be talked out of it, I eventually steered him toward another subject, which came down to the complications of his having accepted that appointment.

It was calving season, and too many calves were dying at birth from a mysterious disease that was wiping out calves across the Northwest that winter.

He also felt guilty about being away for such a long stretch of time with five kids still at home.

At the time, he was also on the local school board, the hospital board, involved with the Cattleman’s Association and preparing to take a seat on the Idaho State Board of Health as well as a vet school advisory board once the legislative term had ended — all of this while wrestling long-distance with an emergency with the herd.

In the course of the discussion I asked something like, “Why do all this, Dad? Isn’t the ranch a handful? Isn’t it enough?” His answer, words I’ve never forgotten, came back.

“Community service is the rent you pay for the public land you walk on.”

I’ve forgotten every word every professor uttered that year in college, every lyric of every aria memorized, every unforgettable kiss and the husband I was sure would stay with me to eternity.

I’ve lost all 15 Budweiser pounds and contact with practically every girl in that sorority.

All the artifacts of that year have vanished into the ether of life, all except those 14 words.

Those words own a permanent place in my psyche and, by turns — depending on whether or not I’ve been able to honor them in my own life — have haunted and inspired me since the day I first heard them.

It wasn’t just my dad, it was both of my parents. This business about giving their time to the community around them, this paying of the rent by way of volunteering, was modeled in stereo.

My mother, an extraordinary pianist turned mother of eight, never missed a chance to give away her musical talent.

It wasn’t enough to play for church every Sunday and for nursing homes and baby showers and for every meeting of every social group she belonged to.

She donated her services to every funeral and wedding, always turning down payment because it was her “God-given talent.”

I grumbled mightily as a teenager when she roped me into the same pay scale for the funerals and weddings I was asked to sing for, but she firmly insisted it was my “God-given talent” and I needed to be a good sport and repay that gift with generosity.

This Island is rife with opportunities to pay our “public rent” on a scale that slides from occasional to full-time.

There’s a spot on the community service roster for every single one of us, young and old, rich or poor. The models of people like my parents, who truly get the concept of generously investing in the enrichment of the community, are everywhere for inspiration — from retirees giving time to the Senior Center to busy parents giving to the schools to hard-working professionals giving their expertise to nonprofits.

I feel proud to be surrounded by these people in this community at a time when a man who unashamedly wrote “community organizer” on his resumé is being promoted to the highest office in the land.

Barack Obama is a bookend for my generation to the president who told us as kids to go out there and ask what we can do for our country, a leader who created something called the Peace Corps, a program that has beckoned the better angels of our nature and our country to this day.

Kennedy preached community service, and my parents, who had learned it at their own parents’ knee, demonstrated it in living color.

I want to believe the unmasking of the shameful ethics in the financial sector in the past six months provides a beautiful opportunity to revisit the value of giving back in the form of service to the community.

Maybe our new president can create a branch of the Peace Corps for all those out-of-work financial geniuses, a new kind of “volunteering” that provides an opportunity for these newly impoverished, erstwhile fat cats to work for nothing side by side with people who now have nothing as a result of their crimes. It could serve as a form of rehabilitation that might make them whole in their humanity.

This month marks the one-year anniversary of my joining the board of trustees of the Heritage Museum.

It’s been a wonderful chance to pay a little back rent, and one of the busiest, most gratifying years of my life. It’s nice to celebrate that anniversary at a time when people are so optimistic about the chance for our country to heal itself under what promises to be more caring leadership.

As we inaugurate a new beginning, let’s do our part and help get things done by looking in the mirror and tapping ourselves as volunteers.

I challenge us all, those of us who are already busy, those of us who are worried about money, those of us who might be feeling a little restless on the couch, to look around for a chance to serve in some way.

Community service, wherever you pay that rent, only makes us stronger, not just as a community, but as individuals looking for bliss — and healing — in what can still be a great and generous nation.

— Rebecca Wittman is a freelance writer living on Vashon.

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