Sometimes I think what keeps us from establishing a personal connection with a needy individual is our fear that we won't be able to maintain clear boundaries. Maybe we'll get close enough to this individual to find out that his or her needs are so dire we'll feel guilty for not taking the person home and providing what my Brooklyn friend calls "three squares and a flop" for a time that might feel like (or even be) forever. Remember Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener"? Saul Bellow's The Victim? Oh, dear, Mary Gordon's Final Payments!
No wonder many of us limit our charitable giving to financial donations. Those of us who in addition can (or who instead do) carve out some hours of personal time to give, probably confine our efforts within the walls of agencies that have well-structured tasks for volunteers to complete. After the board meeting, after the marathon of envelope-addressing, after a certain number of hours in the phone bank, we know we can go home to our usual lives, leaving behind us the needs of the organization and the people it serves.
Freestyle volunteering of the kind I'm promoting is comparatively uncharted territory.
Say you make a connection with a person who's isolated because of chronic mental illness or stuck in the social ghetto of "the homeless," and you set up a weekly meeting with that person at a cafe'. How do you draw a bright line between what you're willing and able, vs. downright unwilling and unable, to do for him or her? Goodness, what if their relatives or friends descend upon you, too, full of expectation?
I keep firmly in mind that my commitment is ONLY to one hour each week, during which I will faithfully buy coffee for, and have a conversation with, one person. If my coffee companion asks for something I can't or don't want to give, I smile and say no. If one day I happen accidentally to cross the boundary line and give more than I want to continue giving in the future, I pull back the next time. In other words, I "just say no." Kindly. Saying No is as beneficial for the giver's character as is saying Yes.
One day I hadn't eaten lunch before my usual meeting with Nancy. When I bought coffee for the two of us, I added a salad for myself to the purchase and asked her if she wanted to join me. She likes food prepared by hands other than her lonely own and happily chose the cold Asian noodles. We enjoyed our lunch together.
The following week, Nancy shyly asked for a salad along with her coffee, and I realized, uh-oh, I'd unwittingly set a precedent. I bought her the dish, but the following week when I hopped on my bike to go meet her as usual, I left my purse behind in the house with all my credit cards and all my cash except for $4 tucked in my pocket. When she ventured to ask for a salad, I told her I had only $4 with me. Only twice more did she ask for food and did I have to regretfully refuse. Now we're back in the old "two cups of coffee" drill.
Well, if I'm feeling flush, sometimes I throw in a bagel.
Please see the entire diary series on this and related topics. And if you'd rather email me than post a comment here at Kos, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.