Thursday, October 18, 2012

Generosity Fail

Chris Pirillo- Flickr

Occasionally you hear someone ask this about generosity: is it really selfless, or do the good feelings in creates in the generous person mean that the motivation is ultimately selfish?

I object to this question for two reasons: first, it doesn't matter why someone is being generous, only that they are. Second, this question usually comes from someone who rarely lifts a finger to help anyone else. So my standard answer is "Who cares?" As long as things are getting accomplished, it doesn't matter what the motivation is. 

But today my generosity of spirit was tested, and I'm sorry to say that I failed.

On Thursday afternoons, if I'm not at work, I volunteer at a clinic that serves the homeless and the medically under served poor. The clinic has been operating for more than 20 years. It has an established clientele and a pretty consistent group of providers. We all get to know each other well, and there aren't many secrets in our cozy clinic space.

Today I got in an tiff with one of our long-time patients. Somehow her file got lost in the shuffle, and she ended up waiting longer than necessary to have vital signs taken. I found out about this when I went to the waiting room to find another patient. I retrieved her file right away and brought her to my work station for vitals. She was very agitated, complaining non-stop about how poorly the clinic runs and how much better organized it would be if she were in charge.  There was also a lot about how everyone treats her like she's stupid. It wouldn't end. After a few minutes I asked her to take a breath and calm down- I swear I did it politely! She became very offended and even more agitated, telling me that I was being condescending and that I had no right to talk to her like that. At that point I told her that she did not need vital signs taken (she had already seen the doctor) and that she could leave.

Of course there was a big scene with a lot of loud complaining in the waiting room. I think everyone working in the clinic that day heard the lady's story, which became more horrific with each retelling. I'm sure by now it involves the threat of bodily violence and some sort of supernatural being.

I really reflected on our conversation, and if I could repeat it I don't think I would do anything differently. I have mostly learned (from lots of misadventures) that it is not productive to argue with crazy people. But basic courtesy needs to exist. And the fact is it's useless to take a blood pressure when the person is in a full on rant- it would be sky high. That is, if you can even hear it over the complaining.

Once I decided that I didn't do anything wrong, I had lots of room in my brain for righteous indignation. How dare she speak to me like that? To act like she's doing me a favor to by letting me check her vital signs. To complain about the inefficiency of a free clinic run entirely by volunteers! Doesn't she know that not a single one of us has to be there? That we're all trying to help?

And that's when I realized that I failed the generosity of spirit test. The bottom line is that I was expecting gratitude for what I'm doing at that clinic. Shame on me.

Before I go back next Thursday, I have to get my head right- I'm there to help the patients that come in, but they're not there to do anything for me. I can expect everyone to exercise basic manners, but I can't expect to get anything in return for my service. A sense of pride in a job well done is probably okay, but self righteousness is not.

I still believe that the most important part of volunteering is that we get out and do it. As long as something is getting accomplished, the motivation for being there is unimportant. But if I find myself feeling superior, or expecting something in return for my service, it's time to re-examine the reason I'm there.

Your prayers would be much appreciated this week. I don't think selflessness comes naturally to me, and I'm going to need all the help I can get!
If you liked this post, please leave a comment. If you loved it, tell your friends, or post it on Twitter or Facebook.

"Retweets are the sincerest form of flattery." Oscar Wilde