It’s Not Altruism, But It Sure Feels Good

I once sat in a communications lecture in which the professor announced,  “There’s no such thing as altruism.”

I raised my hand. “But what about Saint Theresa? Surely she’s an example of someone who lived an altruistic life.”

This led to a spirited discussion of what Saint Theresa got out of her tireless work on behalf of the poor, not least of which was a ticket to heaven, despite her doubts about God and her worries that she was not doing enough to serve her Lord and savior. And then, of course, there’s the gratitude and adulation she received from people all over the world.

I have to admit I think the professor was right.  I’m hardly in Saint Theresa’s league, but I do have quite a bit of experience doing volunteer work. For the last fifteen or so years, my main volunteer gig has been to work with middle school and high school students in a comprehensive sexuality education course called OWL (Our Whole Lives), a program created jointly by the Unitarian-Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. I’m one of the facilitators and coordinators for the semester-long program which provides tweens and teens with a safe place to get accurate information, share concerns, and develop healthy communication and decision-making skills. It’s the kind of program I wish I’d had. When I was growing up, grownups didn’t talk much about the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships or sexual decision-making—let alone, issues like gender identity or sexual orientation. All those decades ago, it felt like we teens were paddling in canoes in the dark, having no idea what we were doing or where we were going. For today’s young people confronting the gamut of these challenging issues, comprehensive sexuality education programs like OWL shine a much needed light.

So obviously, despite the major time commitment the program requires, I strongly believe in it. And that’s one of the big rewards I get from being involved: It adds positive purpose and meaning to my life.

What else do I get out of the program?

  • I get to spend hours each week with young people whose energy, heart, and humor invigorate me. Plus they teach me at least as much as I teach them. And as a young adult novelist, the tweens and teens in OWL help me stay in touch with what it feels like to be young.
  • I get to hang out and work with really cool caring adults, the other facilitators and religious educators who oversee the program.
  • I love getting strokes, and parents and OWL alums are generous in giving them. We facilitators have been thanked repeatedly, told the program was “life-changing,” and in at least one case, “life-saving.”

So no, I’m hardly an altruist because I put mega-hours into a program that takes up a good chunk of my weekends for several months each year.

But it sure feels good.

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