by Niall Fahy
Program Manager: One Health Global Citizens
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Parts and wholes
The universe is rich in rhyme and rhythm. It beats cadences such as this:
Whole atoms are parts of molecules. Molecules form the parts of living cells. A conglomeration of cells make up an organ. And an ensemble of organs makes up a human being.
Each of these wholes is part of a larger system, a ‘higher-order’ whole of interconnected constituents. And the beat goes on – an individual human being is by no means an endpoint. This is an archetypal pattern that repeats throughout Nature.
We are, each of us, members of communities, both local and global. We are knitted to each other inextricably; our links woven through friendship, kinship, love or enmity, through reliance or responsibility, through tradition or simply through proximity.
Practically every person on Earth depends upon others for their material and emotional well-being. The whole of history is a tale of how we have managed to live alongside one another thus far. That story is being written even as you read this page, each of us contributing to it throughout our lifetimes.
If we are to influence the course of this chapter in the story, then the most important investment we can make is in our local, national and global communities. And we have the power to give something which is far more valuable than mere currency – we can share our abilities. We can offer to the greater good some of the moments, minutes and hours that our lives are made of.
Time, in the words of William Penn, “is what we want most, but use worst.” How you choose to spend your time dictates not only your own welfare, but also that of the people around you and that of the society you live in. Consequently, our legacies will be defined far more by what we have done for the world than what we have attained for ourselves.
Wise use of time means giving appropriate care and attention to our own needs, the needs of those close to us, AND the needs of others beyond our immediate sphere. Though technological innovations have brought reprieve from many time-consuming and monotonous tasks of old, the demands of modern life are myriad, thus too often many of us now live in a state of disconnection from ourselves and our neighbours. We are immersed in the ceaseless flow of information that characterises our age, and in many cases experience a sense of isolation and powerlessness when confronted with the problems facing our culture.
There is an antidote to this feeling. It’s called participation.
If we are to establish a global culture that’s worth inhabiting over the years and decades to come, there is much work to be done. There is poverty to be alleviated and ignorance to be dissolved, there are rivers to be cleaned, government policies to be challenged, and exploitative paradigms to be rendered obsolete. Right now, in your community, there is a person or a project or a cause that could benefit greatly from your assistance.
Homo sapiens has evolved as a cooperative and sharing species; the fact that our brains have grown significantly larger than other primates is chiefly due to the complexity of our interactions with each other, and the concurrent need for language as a facilitator of interrelationship.1 So it should come as no great surprise that endeavours intended to strengthen the social fabric (such as volunteering) not only benefit those who are served by the work done, but also tend to have an immensely positive effect on participants’ health, self-development, and standing amongst their peers. Socially engaged undertakings like activism and advocacy bear many similar fruits.
Experientially, time given to a social, ecological or humanitarian project typically produces a high degree of fulfilment. Which is another way of saying that participation feels good. It’s also a great way to connect – to make new friends, establish one’s place in the community, and expand professional networks. A wide range of scientific research has shown that people who volunteer tend to have higher levels of self-esteem, psychological well-being, happiness, and longevity. It’s theorised that these rewards arise primarily due to increased social connectivity.2
Additionally , activism and service work offer a range of opportunities to learn new faculties or develop existing talents. This can be quite useful with regard to one’s career; if you want to try out different roles or gain job experience, look for organisations that are taking on volunteers (It’s worth noting too that HR managers value volunteerism on a CV.)
Ultimately, the most far-reaching effect of participation may be personal growth. Undertaking to live for a broader purpose than self-interest alone is often cited as having been the beginning of a profound transformative process.
Who do you ‘work’ for?
It’s becoming abundantly clear that the economic theory upon which the world currently labours is deeply flawed – creating vast wealth for a select few while banks falter, environmental destruction proceeds unabated, and inequality widens. This paradigm is ready to give way to a more functional one; an approach that serves the needs of people and planet before pure profit.
This concept is understood by many of the world’s business leaders – hence the explosive rise of social enterprise 3 and corporate volunteering programs. In these models, the lines between work and service begin to blur. Employees can use their abilities with the express aims of helping others and creating a healthier culture.
The same process is at work in the public sphere. Passive consumption of televised entertainment is no longer the default way that people spend their spare time. Now that we have online tools that enable interaction and collaboration on large scales, we are free to use this time for more creative and socially engaged pursuits.
Prominent digital media commentator Clay Shirky calls this phenomenon ‘cognitive surplus’. The opportunities it creates are revolutionising media, economics, and civic engagement, as is visible in the rise of the open-source movement and ‘commons based peer production’. Highly valuable tools are being created by non-hierarchical groups of volunteers, and decision making no longer needs to be a centralised top-down process.4 The net result of this is that the possibilities for social evolution are manifold, and growing…
If reading this kindles some flame inside you, and if developing your own personal gifts in service to the world sounds like something worth pursuing, there are many ways that you can choose to proceed.
One Health Organisation is creating a 5 step program which makes it easy for individuals to align their ideals, skills, and mission with the worldwide movement for positive social change. (Click on this link to find out more about becoming a One Health Global Citizen.)
There’s also a list of links to national and international volunteer organisations at the end of this article.5 You may even be a good fit for one of the teams of passionate volunteers that work at OHO or one of our partner organisations.
Or you might have other ideas. You could get your workplace to organise a volunteering events or program. You could start a campaign to protect a threatened ecosystem in your region. You could find out if your child’s school offers a service-learning program. And if they don’t, you could start one.
The important thing is that you act. Altruism and compassion may be the most vital qualities that us human beings possess, but helping each other out is simply a form of enlightened self-interest. Because on a planet with over seven billion people and counting, we’ve either got each other’s backs, or we’ve got nothing.
“It is one of the beautiful compensations of life,
that no man can sincerely help another without helping himself.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
- This notion has been most clearly expressed in the work of anthropologist and neuroscientist Terrence W. Deacon. See his 1997 book ‘The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain’.
- ‘The Benefits of Giving Back’ by Sylvia Ann Hewlett
‘Why Helping Others Makes Us Happy’ by Philip Moeller
- ‘Social Enterprise’ means an organisation, profit or non-profit, that aims to ameliorate social or environmental problems through the use of commercial strategies.
- Notable examples of how our increased connectivity is being harnessed through open source frameworks include: Wikipedia, Iceland’s new constitution, Global Service Jam, Bitcoin, web-based microlending, Usahidi’s crisis reporting software, crowd-funding platforms, the Android smartphone operating system, and Creative Commons licensing.