with a smile of course.
An expression made famous by P.G. Wodehouse in the title of his novel published in 1961,
This term in my Practical Philosophy class the theme is ‘The Way of Action’; how to achieve wisdom, happiness and enlightenment through action. There are more ways to enlightenment than meditating in a cave or temple thousands of feet above sea level, or so it is rumoured.
Our tutor proposed a route we could explore during our investigation of enlightenment through action, the route was volunteering at the school of practical philosophy which is entirely run by volunteers, even, especially, the tutors don’t get paid.
Considerable dust clouds, mental at least, were stirred up as we urgently examined our excuses, ‘Good, honest, believable excuses wanted immediately, apply within’.
Inner turmoil, shock at being asked to volunteer, entitlement kicking in was an explanation given later by a member of the class not present that day but who understood my reactions when i mentioned them, “Entitlement, we are paying for these classes”, suggested my class-mate, “in return we expect to be provided with wisdom and happiness and, if we want to go that far, enlightenment. Entitlement, rather than enlightenment is our driving force”.
That made sense to me. Back in the moment, i was seeking to understand the hugely negative feelings the request to volunteer had generated in me.
My second thought was, if i react so badly to this suggestion then i need to examine it closely and the only way to do that is to volunteer.
Silence fell upon the class, there was no mad scramble to be first to volunteer. Our tutor looked slightly embarrassed to have asked us.
I spoke, having first thought, an unusual juxtaposition for me and volunteered my assistance. Stated my availability to do whatever was needed, really pushing the boundaries here, committed myself to once a week until the end of term, nine weeks. I was really on a roll. Suggested Wednesdays, knowing i’d still be full of philosophical fervour after our class on an Tuesday evening. So I ended up in the 7.30 to 9.30 slot helping with the teas and cakes at break time. I had broken through that barrier, now all i had to do was fulfill my promise.
Some genuine excuses followed from my class-mates and some followed my plunge into volunteernship.
The third week I missed, being stuck out on a site being an environmental geologist with a broken down excavator. With the unusual experience of wisdom with foresight, I had obtained a telephone number the evening before, in case of such an eventuality, texted my apologies, finished my job, didn’t worry, didn’t stress, stayed free.
In the following week’s class, i found myself talking about my experience. I still have not gotten used to being a talker rather than a thinker, my assessment occurs, my cognitive powers work, while my jaw is engaged.
And this was my story;
“I feel guilty, i feel as if my volunteering is for a selfish motive. The reason being that the pleasure obtained far exceeds the effort provided. It does not seem right that the placement of a few tea-bags in a pot of boiling water could provide such pleasure, pure pleasure; but it does.”
Following some questions from my tutor, I added;
“I only made the one commitment, to volunteer weekly for the term. That was because i didn’t trust myself but i know once committed i’d do it. And the pleasure, where does it come from, from service of course, providing people with a cup of tea and a slice of cake when they want and need it but also, perhaps more so, it is from the doing of it with others, helping each other, supporting each other, making the volunteering a good experience for the people i’m assisting – there’s a lot of love in there. I don’t know where it comes from but its there”.
One of my classmates had volunteered once and expressed concern that she’d done it from a desire to give something back and now she questioned whether that was a good motive. We all knew that it was; a good and honourable motive. Yet she didn’t seem to experience the pleasure i had. So she determined to do it again, to see. My class-mates are so impressive. If i had a thought it would be that a sense of duty rather than love was her principle experience. It is so easy to do our daily duties from that very source, a sense of duty, rather than from love. It gets them done but it doesn’t advance us.
Life seemed so simple.
The following week i was overtired and anxious about other measures. The pleasure was there but had to be winkled out. I was close to being a grumpy service provider.
Life is not so simple.
In the meantime, parkrun, that most amazing organisation which is run by volunteers across the globe produced a report and included the following conclusion, “Volunteering is every bit as beneficial a form of physical activity as walking, jogging or running, and it provides a fantastic opportunity for people to participate in their community”. The Report continued to explain how it is only now, after thousands of hours of volunteering have been clocked up, that the organisation is beginning to understand how beneficial volunteering is to the volunteer in terms of health and wellbeing.
We may just have identified the Way to health, happiness and enlightenment for the Twenty-first century and beyond. In past times, in earlier communities and civilization, much was shared and even though this sharing was often the carrying out of duties, still fun was had, love was shared. I have some memories as a boy when farmers in my local area of Aclare, would come together to carry out some farmwork, maybe harvesting and how there was no bad words, no rows, no snatching of the last potato or grabbing the last cup of tea. Meitheal was the Irish word for it, co-operation. Or rather, “the ancient and universal appliance of cooperation to social need“, imagine that, imagine that everywhere.
I remember laughter at those gatherings, and, knowing what i know now, i remember love.
Let us allow P.G. Wodehouse to have the last word, one of his favourite experiences,
“As we grow older and realize more clearly the limitations of human happiness, we come to see that the only real and abiding pleasure in life is to give pleasure to other people.”
Keep giving my friends.