My job at our local food bank is checkout: I pleasantly survey a customer’s shopping cart to make certain they haven’t exceeded the guidelines and help them bag it. I perform this chore with good humor, and the customers respond with good humor. Usually, that is.
A few weeks ago, a fellow checkout volunteer came to me in near-tears because a customer had been rude, aggressive and abrasive to her. I consoled her, explaining that if it ever happens again, she should excuse herself and reach out to a paid staff member for support.
But this incident stuck with me and got me thinking about why I volunteer. If you asked me why I volunteer, I would reflexively tell you that it’s my way of giving back to those less fortunate than me.
The more I thought about it, however, I began to discover a deeper, more personal and selfish reason: a need for gratitude.
When our girls were in middle school, my wife and I wanted to introduce them to volunteering with the hope it would become as normal a part of their lives as eating a nutritious breakfast.
We chose Teen Feed in the University District where, once a month, we prepared and served a meal of spaghetti, salad and French bread to 50 or 60 youth experiencing homelessness.
The vast majority of the youth smiled and thanked us, but occasionally we were confronted with an unhappy customer who would complain that there was no meat in the spaghetti, or that the bread was overcooked, or that the salad dressing was lousy.
Though rare, these complaints would bother me for days, and that’s when I came up with my rule #1 for volunteering: If you’re in it for the gratitude, you’re in it for the wrong reason!
But we all crave gratitude as a validation of our actions and feel let down when we don’t get it. Who doesn’t want to feel appreciated? All it takes is a smile or a simple “Thank you.”
Which brings me to a recent incident that changed the way I think about gratitude.
My wife and I were in the lobby of the Uptown Theater to see a movie presented by the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to face a young man in his early 20s.
“Remember me?” he asked. Much as I wanted to say “Yes, of course,” I had no recollection of ever seeing this person before. “No, I’m afraid not,” I replied.
The young man then tapped an older woman on the shoulder and said, “Mom, look who’s here.” The woman turned around and a big smile exploded across her face. “Well hello,” she blurted out. “You tutored my son back when he was in grade school.”
Somewhat flummoxed at my inability to place him in my memory, I replied, “Great. What are you up to these days?” The young man explained that he had finished high school and was about to begin an apprenticeship to become an electrician. “Fantastic,” I said. “No way will your job ever be shipped overseas!”
We were about to go into the movie as the mother said to me, “I always wanted to thank you for helping my son. Not only did you help him with his schoolwork, but you also helped him understand the importance of education.” My heart was pounding so hard with pride I can’t remember what the movie was about.
The message here is that gratitude is embedded in the act of volunteering. It may show itself immediately, not at all, or, as in this case, years later.