Community Service Contrition

I run a Microstore in my dorm for Microcredit Initiative, Inc., the first non-profit to be formed at Phillips Academy. A girl came into my room one night, looking for a Cup O’ Noodles. I handed her the food, and she handed me the money, and then said, with true curiosity, “Where does this money go, anyway?” Microstores, if you don’t have one in a dorm near you, essentially sell junk food—EasyMac, Red Bull and the occasional bag of Cheetos—for a profit, and the profits go to loans for entrepreneurs on the island of Ile a Vache in Haiti. In case you were wondering. But the truth is, not many people do. There is a surplus of community service opportunities and organizations on this campus; this much is undeniable. When someone is selling something, like bracelets or T-shirts or food, it usually goes to some non-descript community service organization to bring clean water to someone, or clothe someone, or send someone to a camp they can’t afford. Each person on campus has their contrived pet cause, so to speak. He helps young indigent writers. She saves dolphins from their horrifying fates off the coast of Japan. Just like we, at Mi3, try to help people launch their own ideas. But if I’m the dolphin girl, I don’t know or care about the writer boy, and vice versa. Please understand that I’m not trying to be crass. The truth is, I never really know exactly where my money is going unless I am the seller, or unless I ask. And most students, including me, never think to ask. It’s going where it’s needed, we think, and subsequently feel self-satisfied that we helped someone or something somewhere. Being involved in some kind of community service organization is universally respected. At a job interview, on an application, we always feel comfortable, even proud, stating our participation in something that does absolutely nothing for ourselves. Yet when we ask people what they do on campus—and they begin to rattle on emphatically about whatever it is they’re passionate or pretend to be passionate about—I tune out. Is it because I only have one slot in my mind that requires a community service commitment? Is it because, when we decide to care about a variety of causes, our credibility inevitably starts to waver? After all, if you’re a green-mongering, dolphin-saving, water-purifying super-service Andover student, one of those passions must, at one time or another, take a backseat. You might leave the water on while you brush your teeth, thus proving yourself only a marginal tree-hugger. You might accidentally (or not so accidentally) delete your weekly email from without even skimming its horrifying contents. Because when you care about so many causes at once, you can only do so much to help. And then the guilt piles on. Why did I bow out of the Walk for Hunger this year? Why did I let the plant in my room die over winter break? And why, oh why, did I delete that email, ahem, accidentally? Maybe I’m just more unnaturally prone to contrition than the next person, but I can’t stand the idea of marginally believing in something. I can’t stand sort-of participating, or coming to meetings twice a term and then pretending the cause doesn’t exist for the rest. I hate being anything but completely passionate about a cause. Except for that time when I, a vegetarian, ate the gravy in Commons on a bad day. And man, was I guilty. The second time? I was satiated, but inconsolable. So I don’t ask about other people’s causes, other people’s passions, for fear of not doing them justice. But when someone asks about mine, I get ridiculously excited (even though they inevitably tune me out.) When the girl in my teeny-tiny room asked me about my Microstore, I gave her my explanation, a long-winded one with lots of gesticulating, to be sure. And she said, “That’s great! I’ll come back, then.” And that’s when I realized: Asking people about their causes only makes them more passionate. And shouldn’t we all be passionate about something? Likewise, we should all be interested, though maybe not entirely committed to something. After all, in order to understand what we truly want to throw ourselves into, we must first be told one of those wide-eyed, gesticulating explanations. So I vow, from now on, to start asking people about their causes. Because it’s not just something that they can jot on an application (although no one can deny that it’s a good feeling.) Most people that I meet on campus are truly passionate about something. And if I listen, maybe decide to learn more and go to a meeting, I won’t feel guilty if I then decide it’s not my life’s true purpose. Except if I eat the gravy again. I can only imagine the guilt. Thea Raymond-Sidel is a three-year Upper from Iowa City, IA and a Commentary Editor for The Phillipian.