In recent weeks, I’ve been working to examine some of my habitual behaviors. There are reasons for this—a training I am engaged in—but it is proving useful at a broad personal level. In particular, I’ve been attempting to better understand the emotional states of being that drive certain habitual behaviors of mine, and how they do that in ways that I would rather they not.
One of the contexts in which I’ve been considering this is in my attempts at providing some kind of service to my community. I dare say I do not do this nearly so much as I would prefer; I have these grand ideals for how I might best be a good citizen and community member, how I might best participate in the greater social good. The problem is that I also have some grand ideas about personal projects I want to accomplish—and I also have a wife, and a day job, and others to attend to and assist, and a raft of daily practices I want to accomplish. And on top of all that, I am not someone who prefers having his nose to the grindstone. Rather, I like to relax, and read, and think, and at least have a bit of time toward the end of the day to unwind.
Unfortunately, what all this leads to are these periods of my life when I become overwhelmed, daunted by all I perceive I have to do, and it is then that my decision-making short circuits at the behest of my emotions. It is in these moments that I look for escape. It is these moments I have the overwhelming urge to run and to leave behind my responsibilities.
This is particularly on my mind of late not only because I’m attempting to examine and better understand these habits, but because I’m currently in one such period. It’s not as bad as they can be, but the last few days have been a challenge. Partly that is the season; inevitably, I have one of these moments during the holidays. It all begins to pile up: the acquisition of gifts, the making of family plans, the year-end scramble at work, the wrapping, the cards, the worry that I am not going to be a good enough husband or son or brother or nephew. And I make it worse myself through my own bad habits of procrastination and avoidance, indecision and desire to please. It’s a perfect storm, every year, and it’s a wonder that still, somehow, Christmas is a holiday I enjoy.
This year has brought a new wrinkle, though, and it dovetails with my desire to be not only a good person, but a good citizen. This year has seen the onset of some challenges at the Grange of which I am a member. It so happens that we are short-staffed with members at the moment; that despite this fact we took on a large project; and now we are running into trouble with the project. It has some fairly wide-ranging potential impacts that must be dealt with carefully, and what is most needed at the moment is probably volunteer time and good old elbow grease to get us out the other side. And yet, that is what I feel perhaps the least capable of at the moment; and while no one is demanding I take the lead, I can’t help but feel I should jump in to lend a heavy hand.
I do not yet know what the outcome of this situation will be, though I’m relatively confident we’ll navigate it one way or another. But earlier today, as I sunk myself into the details and realized the dimensions of the challenge, I could not help but feel a great desire to throw up my hands, proclaim it an impossibility, and absolve myself of the challenge.
Is this useful? Not particularly. Is it the way to be a good citizen? Not really. Thankfully, I did not just throw up my hands, despite the desire. I attempted to be useful, to provide some guidance and feedback, and hopefully to continue to lend a hand as needed. It’s a funny situation, though—at the end of the day, I can only do what I can do, and I can’t give the Grange so much of myself that it is a detriment to my personal or professional life. Yet if I see it as important that I play a role in this organization, and that I do my part to, through it, improve my community, then I cannot just throw up my hands. I don’t get to just walk away. Doing that is an abdication, as well.
The balance is the trick, of course, but in thinking on this it drives home the understanding that being a good citizen is hard. It has its many moments of reward and joy, mind you—I cannot even begin to say how much benefit I’ve derived from being a Grange member these past eight years. But it requires time and attention that I am constantly putting into competition. Where will it go today? How will I juggle it tomorrow? How can I stretch it as far as it will go without breaking?
It’s a sobering thought, not least of all because I really do believe in the need for a greater web of community in our society today, and I really do believe that volunteerism and community organizations of all kinds are key elements of that. I also see them as part of the basis of a functional democracy, and reengaging with organizations and the coherent, small-scale, on-the-ground forms of democracy the better ones are able to represent and teach is crucial to bringing us back to some kind of healthy and coherent democratic life. And yet, despite my belief in all this, even I find myself wanting to turn tail and run at the challenge—and it makes me wonder how we bring people back to these tasks at hand, to these formations of community, and leaves me unsurprised at how such organizations so often struggle to retain members or to find them in the first place.
I don’t believe any of this is insoluble, but I have no easy answers, either. I would like to think on it more, but in the meantime, there’s so much to do. I have some problems to help solve, a personal life to attend to, a job to stay on top of, and personal work and reflection to do. I’ll get to this, to more thought on this subject. But for the moment, it’s going to have to get in line and wait for me to call its number.