The volunteers – what makes them tick?
A short note about the volunteers at the wildlife rescue centre:
First of all… a big thank you for helping me out, you do unbelievable work.
Secondly, I came to the centre expecting (hoping?) to see a common trait, a genetic strength (or perhaps flaw) that bound the group together.
What is it that makes people animal lovers? Or… what is it that makes me love animals?
Perhaps its a common history of growing up with family pets, or maybe a negative experience of dealing with humans? ( I heard only today that Simon Cowell loves dogs more than humans. But that says little about his love of dogs. And says little about anyone else) .
Truth be told, all the volunteers were outstandingly normal and easy to be with, not the type I expected at all (but what did I expect? Vegans with hair braids and repressed anger… I don’t know).
Chris, a young man with spiky hair, chatty and confident, told me what brought him here. He didn’t have hair braids.
‘One day I saw a seagull on the road that had been hit by a car, lying on the zebra crossing. People walked past . I got out of the car and didn’t know what to do. I found I hated the feeling of not knowing what to do. I thought, ‘I could go on or I could help’. I took the bird to one side, found a box and put it in there. Then I found the number for this centre and came here. I saw that they knew what to do so I decided to volunteer there and then. I’ve never had so much job satisfaction in my whole life. I’d give it all up and work here full time if I could just afford to apy the mortgage.’
Other people spoke of the ‘addiction’ of wanting help. That seemed a strange word to be associated with compassionate action. I could understand words like ‘effort’ or ‘guilt’ or perhaps ‘satisfaction’. But ‘addiction’?
‘Yeh, you go to sleep knowing that an animal is in distress and you just have to get up and help it.’ said another ‘When you help save a life it gives you such a buzz you want it again.’
Some of the volunteers however did readily admit to a period of pain in their lives. A breakdown in their teens or issues with depression or needing to find a new direction, and they also talked of the positive effects of volunteering on their mental health. Whether or not these issues were more prevalent here than in the wider world I don’t know but it’s my firm (and probably obvious) hypothesis that those that feel the most compassion for others have had a period in their lives where they know what it feels like to be on the other side.
We’ve all been through serious pain – for me it’s been many years of miserable mental suffering from depression and some OCD – but the positive that comes from the negative is that it carves out a space in your heart into which you can fit the suffering of others.
At this point the inevitable objections arise – but what about compassion for humans?
Surely those that love animals love humans less. The mad woman with 80 cats who swears at her neighbours comes to mind. Simon Cowell telling a teenager she’s ugly and talentless….
This is such a big and onerous topic that I’m going to come back to it in more detail later, but suffice to say that I think there is some truth in the objection but not enough to make it solid.
Yes, even in myself, I feel the pull towards animals from a certain push that I felt at the hands of humans – the experience of feeling isolated as a kid and unable to express myself led me to identify with the wordlessness of the animal world.
But there is an assumption that underlines the objection that should be challenged: that caring for animals drains our ability to care for humans. Surely the heart is not like a wallet, it is like a muscle – it does not go bankrupt with use, it gets stronger with exercise.
Or does it?
Right now, at the end of my short period of help I feel emotionally and physically drained. But if my theory is correct I’ll come back stronger and more compassionate soon. If it’s wrong I’ll end up a very poor man. The fact that I’m not earning this year makes me suspect that latter might be the case.
We shall see.