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Give & Take: There is No Such Thing as a Selfless Act

Irina Navarro  Follow

While having a reflective conversation with a friend a few years ago, I remarked that I felt that my volunteering was not meaningful enough, since one of the reasons I did it was to make myself feel good and useful. It was not fully altruistic.

She told me, “There is no such thing as a selfless act.”

In a way, those words liberated me. I think we tend to find a lot of mental obstacles not to volunteer. I hear people say, “I would love to” followed by “I’m too busy” or “I am tired” or “I don’t think I would be helpful.” I believe most people want to volunteer, but there is a bit of a disconnect between wanting and doing – and I am definitely guilty of this.

Back when I was in high school, I spent a year volunteering every Saturday at a soup kitchen at a nearby church. It was a developmental experience that changed how I saw people and how I prioritized my time, and it re-affirmed my belief that giving back was something that needed to always be part of my life, in some way or another.

As high school ended, I moved across the world, and while my desire to volunteer remained, the amount of actual volunteering decreased significantly. My main mental block was that I didn’t know where or how to find volunteer opportunities, and my lack of involvement snowballed from there.

When I joined Prosek a few months ago that changed. Suddenly I was getting emailed volunteer opportunities left and right and I could no longer deny that I simply needed to reprioritize giving back. I decided to sign up for an effort at the Pine Street Inn, a local soup kitchen in Boston that needed volunteers for their dinner service. It reminded me of when I would help at the soup kitchen as a teenager.

Pine Street Inn provides a comprehensive range of services to nearly 2,000 homeless people each day. It is the largest homeless services provider in New England. Getting back into volunteering was admittedly a bit intimidating, but the whole process was extremely organized and our tasks at the service line were very direct. When dinner service started, my anxiety melted away and I just focused on the goal at hand.

In roughly two hours, I helped complete the dinner service and when it was over, I felt tired, but proud that I took the chance and finally overcame my “mental block” about volunteering. I am invigorated to make this a more consistent part of my time, with my Prosek colleagues and also in my free time.

It’s easy to romanticize giving back as purely altruistic and self-sacrificing, but it’s also important for ourselves that we dedicate some part of our lives to improving our society, our community and our world.

While not everyone has time to take two hours out of their day to go to a soup kitchen, giving back is not one-size-fits-all. Find an event you are willing to go to once a year, volunteer online, help a friend or donate a dollar. A recent study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found a correlation between volunteering and wellbeing. Add it to your routine in some way shape or form. It is key for a fulfilling life.

It’s been a few years since that friend told me “there is no such thing as a selfless act,” but I recently looked up that phrase and found a quote that resonated with me by Bill Crawford, an author and psychologist, who said: "There is no such thing as a selfless act... nor should there be. We don't have to be selfless to avoid being selfish."

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