Monday, January 17, 2011

Why the hell did I volunteer?

So the flood clean up is in full effect. Tens of thousands of residents strode out over the weekend to go and make a difference. (That difference mostly being 'sewage' to 'no sewage'.) People started out upbeat, and on Saturday night I saw a lot of talk on social media about how uplifting an experience the whole thing has been. Come Sunday afternoon and people were getting tired. Occasionally they were getting resentful.

I heard stories about people being berated in public for not helping out and there was a definite sense of judgement out there. Some volunteers couldn't understand how people could sit around laughing when they'd spent the day with people in mud and (let's face it) shit.

But quite frankly, I'm surprised that I volunteered. I've never volunteered before for anything like this. In fact, Volunteering Qld is also surprised that I volunteered. They've been completely overwhelmed with offers from citizens. From their point of view this is completely unprecedented, and I've got a theory why that might be.

That's quite a bog.

I haven't been affected by the flooding other than a couple of hours without power. In fact my wife was sent home from work so in that respect it was a blessing. Under usual circumstances I might have occasionally seen some news mentioning how bad the damage is... somewhere else, happening to other people.

There's always something terrible happening to other people somewhere and like most people, I'm able to compartmentalise it and emotionally distance myself from it. Our monkey brains are only smart enough to deal with 150 real relationships. Anything larger and things get abstract.

But then my Twitter feed lit up like a Christmas tree. The information poured in and it was too much for my dams of cynicism to mitigate. I couldn't ignore it. People can't put something to the back of their mind when they keep exposing the front of their face to it.

When my wife suggested that we make a donation I responded with a number much larger than she expected and moments later I was signed up to the Emergency Volunteers website as well.

Almost everything on my Twitter feed was flood related and everyone was trying to help, but when I looked at the numbers it still meant only 1 in 100 people were out there on Saturday helping. Tons of people aren't effected and aren't doing anything to help.

They've compartmentalised the tragedy and I think it's because they're not exposing themselves to social media. They're able to put it to the back of their mind. Just like we all do. Just like we have to in order to function in the world where there's always something terrible happening.

I've pitched in because being connected to Twitter has made this my tragedy, but for some people, it's not theirs.

It's not their turn...



  1. If 10 times more people had shown up to help, would that have been better, or would it have made things worse? A poorly-organized project with way too many bodies "helping" can be an ugly thing.

    I seem to remember showing up for some volunteer project years ago and being turned away. Any negative experience had when volunteering will make it easier to ignore calls for help in the future (for most people).

    The important thing is: did you feel like you made a difference?

  2. Too many cooks, Alan. I found a job doing surveying high water marks that kept me away from mis-management. Also from hard labour which I feel a bit bad for but you should see the maps I made. They're lovely.


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