Real money magic: volunteering

“I would never volunteer,” remarked the grandmother of a friend of mine. “Why give it away if you can get paid for it?”

That’s the quintessential problem with money: once it’s introduced into a society, the temptation is to quantify everything. The insistence of that grandmother to have all her time be measured in dollars comes from the same state of mind that spawned the idea that human lives can be bought and sold. The same magic that allows money to bring good things into people’s lives can be used to reduce every human interaction to a number.

I don’t think it’s fair to blame money for this desire we have to see all things through the lens it offers. We are malleable mortal beings, and encounters with spirit always carry with them the possibility of the profound. Some spirits, like that of opium, I steer away from because those encounters are incredibly dangerous for humans. Other spirits, like air, I must engage with lest I die. Money carries with is some of both perils, tempting us to frame our world as profit statements and deliverables.

Not everything of value can be priced, and not everything that can be, should be. It’s a human failing to use too much of a good thing, whether it’s money, sugar, heroin, sex, or curling; humans seldom pursue any form of pleasure in moderation.

I don’t have much time to volunteer, but I’m glad to do what I can. Lately that’s been helping to steer a local nonprofit farm that’s got a heavy emphasis on feeding hungry people. Due to how the systems are structured, I don’t have direct contact with the people getting fresh produce to supplement the crap they’re stuck eating because they live in a food desert. I can’t even take a tax deduction for the time I spend, but that’s not the point. People are getting fed. Children are learning where food comes from. I am meeting people in my community I didn’t know lived here, and strengthening my ties to my home.

The benefits of volunteering may not be easily quantified, but they are incredibly valuable, both to the volunteer (although the research doesn’t confirm causation, there’s definitely a relationship) and to anyone who is a recipient of those efforts. I don’t think I would have been able to convince that granny of this truth, but truth it is.

What is difficult for Grandma Worksforpay and many who live in capitalist societies to grasp is the value proposition of the anything that cannot be quantified or, more specifically, priced. That is not their fault; one does not expect the fish to notice the water. In The Soul of Money, author Lynne Twist begins with the tale of Chumpi Washikiat, member of an Amazonian tribe called the Achuar. Washikiat’s people didn’t use money, weren’t familiar with the concept of money, and got along just fine without money. Historically, that dynamic has not gone well: land conscription, resource exploitation, and slavery are common results of early contact between monetary and non-monetary peoples. The Achuar were trying to get ahead of the curve, learning about money before money mowed them down. Writes Twist:

“When the Achuar are in their rain forest home they are prosperous and have everything they need, and have been so for centuries, even millennia. One step out of the rain forest into our world and they can’t eat, find shelter, or live for any length of time without money. Money is not an option; it is a requirement.”

Plenty of people — albeit not necessarily readers of my humble blog — would nod their heads sagely as they read that passage, perhaps sympathetic to the simple savage trying to make his way in the civilized world. I see a different message, as did Twist herself, that within “civilization” it’s difficult to imagine life without money, perhaps as difficult it is to imagine how one thinks before learning language. In Debt: the First 5,000 Years, David Graeber frequently returns to the amount language which is couched in monetary terms, showing as “owing” someone because of a small gesture, such as letting the other person merge a car onto the freeway. Even those of us who are cognizant of money, or try to be, think in those terms frequently throughout the day. I’m tempted to call it a “startling” or “alarming” frequency, but it’s no more alarming that the rising water temperature around that proverbial toad, about to be boiled alive.

There is a Jewish tradition of anonymity in charity, baked into Maimonides’ eight levels of giving. I believe that’s intended to separate doing good things from the quantity of money involved, to some extent, but I’m not sure how effective it is. The person who gives will always know how much they give, even if they don’t know to whom they actually gave it. Granted, this system prevents the one from lording it over the other, and that’s an important acknowledgement of our fundamentally jerky nature, but I believe the ideal extension would be giving which is so anonymous that the donor isn’t even aware that the money is gone.

However, that’s another discussion. This post is about volunteering. (Focus, man!) This post is about giving time in lieu of money. Here’s a few things I’ve done in recent years, for which I have not even gotten a t-shirt for compensation:

  • collected food for a local food bank
  • volunteered reorganizing all the canned goods at said food bank (side note: food banks tend to be full of crap no one wants to eat, which for me includes canned olives and hog’s feet. Pro tip: it’s nice to know that something you’re not eating isn’t going to waste, but please consider buying an extra box or can of something you would eat, just to mix it up a bit)
  • sitting on the board of a farm which has a substantial food justice mission (and if readers are sensing a trend, they may not be incorrect)
  • growing a mustache to raise money for cancer research
  • taking care of kids while their parents attended a political caucus
  • picked up trash that magically accumulates over the winter in my college town

Whatever the skills, whatever the time availability, there’s a volunteer opportunity for that. Some of my neighbors organize the library book fair each year. A friend of mine knits caps for premature babies. My mother delighted in her time at a local thrift shop, the proceeds from which supported a sliding-scale mental health clinic. The opportunities are without end, and the need is great.

Coming back to that grandmother I once knew who would never have volunteered, well, more’s the pity, because I am richer for the time I have given away than ever I could be from the time I spend for pay.

Real money magic is part of a wider project, Thrifty Pagan Writings.  If you think this stuff is utterly amazing, please convince me to start a Patreon account.

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