Joco Opinion

November 19, 2013

Sarah Smith Nessel — Making a living versus living a life

If you’d like to make your own change in the world, do yourself and your community a favor and commit to volunteering.

It’s not easy being an idealistic realist.

I should know, as I’ve been one for decades.

The concept isn’t really contradictory. True, idealists are prone to dashing out into the world to save orphans and organize international human rights campaigns, while realists tend to go to the office every day and worry about retirement and insurance.

But many of us occupy a middle ground, toiling away at unglamorous jobs while also honestly believing that we can leave this world a better place than it was when we arrived.

My midlife crisis has arrived right on time, with its reminder that I have more days behind me than ahead. I wouldn’t say I’ve wasted those past days, but I didn’t make the most of them, either. The late ’80s and early ’90s were a particularly self-indulgent and pointless period, although that’s when I did manage to earn a bachelor’s degree (in what turned out to be a worthless field).

My realistic side has kept me working, steadily, since the early 1980s, because that’s what people do in the rural, nose-to-the-grindstone culture that I come from. We don’t take month-long vacations or sabbaticals or gap years or whatnot. Unless we are teachers with those glorious summers off, we know that if our employers can do without us for even two weeks, they can do without us forever.

Realists don’t count on their parents when it’s time to write checks for weddings or mortgages or their kids’ college educations. Realists aren’t even sure their kids will go to college. And if those kids do go, they won’t use their parents’ retirement funds or home equity for tuition. Because realistic parents are not stupid.

Then there’s the idealistic me. That’s the part of my personality that thinks I can make a lasting difference in the world, that my son will grow up to live independently and prosper, and that I will someday be able to retire — or at the very least, work only part-time.

When I think of the perfect blend of realism and idealism, I think of the post-World War II household. Yes, really. Talk to many men of that generation, and you’ll see realism — working hard and providing for their families was their sole focus for decades. Meanwhile, their wives, who weren’t pulling 40- and 50-hour weeks at the office and bringing work home to do after the kids were in bed, as so many women (and men) do today, were volunteering. Civic activities were a major part of their lives, and their communities were much better for it.

That societal formula may have worked in one sense, but it was a disaster in others. Some men of that generation fell into serious depression in retirement, because they had never once given a thought to what they’d like to do with their lives, other than work — for pay. Volunteering? Forget it. In their minds, any work worth doing was worth getting paid for. And their wives were in some cases completely unequipped to support themselves or manage finances on their own.

Now that those gender stereotypes have gone to their well-deserved grave, it’s time for everyone to embrace a balance of work and worth. More people today — particularly those in their 20s and 30s — know that making a living is not the same as living a life. I don’t have hard numbers to support this, but I know a lot of people in that age range, and I can tell you that their passion for volunteerism and their civic-mindedness go far beyond anything my generation ever had.

If you’d like to make your own change in the world, do yourself and your community a favor and commit to volunteering. It doesn’t have to be much — just two hours a month, multiplied by the thousands of people who read this publication, can have a big impact.

You can check with any faith group or civic organization for opportunities. If that doesn’t appeal to you, or if you’re looking to choose from a wide variety of volunteer projects every month, go to Meetup .com and join the more than 1,600 members of the group called Serve KC. Through that group alone, you can help out at fundraising races, food banks, clothing drives, yard work projects, disaster-relief agencies and dozens of other places and events.

The holiday season is prime time for community work and charity, but just a few weeks from now, the decorations will come down, the lights will be packed away and the ranks of volunteers will thin greatly.

And speaking of thinning, aren’t you getting a little tired of that same old New Year’s resolution to lose weight? It’s a worthy goal, but there’s no reason to let the fact that you have access to too much food keep you from helping those who don’t have access to enough.

Join me in adding a modest few hours of community involvement to your resolutions. Surely your inner idealist can persuade your inner realist to try one project a month. You’ll meet great people, and you’ll gain perspective into just how fortunate you are.

We’ll all leave this world someday. Let’s make sure we leave it a little better.

Reach Sarah Smith Nessel atsarahinjoco@

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