Karen Krizanovich: The Truth About Altruism
I volunteer at a Positive Health Programme, aimed at improving the wellbeing of HIV patients. I am not HIV+ myself, but I have friends who are. I didn’t ask to serve in this programme. They needed accredited personal trainers and I am one, so I offered. (In the interests of full disclosure, I also get free gym membership.) Not that I work as a professional personal trainer. I became a personal trainer because it’s cheaper for me to train one person (me) than to keep hiring personal trainers for the rest of my life.
Sometimes I can’t understand the people I’m training because I don’t know their culture: English men, on the whole reserved and serious, put up with my clowning and are maybe amused. African women – from Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and other countries – are sassy, smart, softly spoken, strong, funny, forthright and focused. So many have played sports in their youth. It’s quite beautiful to see inklings of them as sporty schoolgirls. I hope I make working out fun and effective for them, but I don’t know.
Mostly, I don’t know them. I don’t know who they are, what they do, where they were born or their back stories, yet every session I learn more from them than from the newspapers or my Twitter feed. Listening to their lives – battling with social services, medications that leave them feeling ill, weak and depressed, troubles with landlords, medical complications, children, lovers, husbands – reminds me of what the hippies always said: we are all connected. It sounds naff, yes, but underneath the position you hold, the money you earn, the family you love, your mighty accomplishments, we are people. Like Ruth Gordon says in Harold and Maude: ‘I like people. They’re my species.’
Without your position and your connections, what are you? Anyone who’s ever lost a job, knows what I mean. I once had a theory that everything we do – including me volunteering – is essentially for sex: to make ourselves attractive to others. Recently, I’ve concluded that’s only the first phase. The second is that everything we do, we do to distract ourselves from mortality.
You’re going to die. I’m going to die. I’ve already lost people I dearly love. Maybe you have, too. It’s this eternal problem of knowing we’re sinking and not knowing what to do while we’re treading water. We panic in an attempt to snuff out the noise of the approaching scythe: we buy the speedboat, the private island, the horse for our daughter, the car for our son. But it is only pushing away the fact that every birth carries an automatic death sentence. Every time I volunteer, I see the changes in my students. They come. They go. They flourish. They don’t.
That goes for me, too: I look in the gym mirror and I see one of those really sad gym women with the flat butt, reedy arms and bitch-face. What happened? Some folks have told me this volunteering thing is a career killer. ‘How can you take one hour off every Thursday to do something completely opposite your career focus?’ I rub my chin, and look up at them, sort of Princess Diana-like and say: ‘You’re right. I shouldn’t do this.’ But we are here and maybe the best we can do is be at peace with our conscience. Maybe this is why I’m volunteering rather than beavering away at a bigger, better career that will make me a goddess to generations yet unborn. This is why I’m at the gym, showing someone a pec deck when I could be like the late Joan Rivers, constantly updating my face, writing new jokes and furiously ‘staying hungry’ until that fateful day.
For guidance, I like that lovely adage: ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.’ That quote, often misattributed, began with Ian Maclaren, aka Reverend John Watson. His original, ‘Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle’, appeared in the 1897 Christmas edition of The British Weekly, should you ever need to argue against those sham quoters Plato or Philo of Alexandria, who didn’t say it.
‘Everyone’ includes you and me. You, too, are fighting a harder battle. That we know the outcome already – that we may win the battle but will definitely lose the war – is important. If we’re pushing away the thought of mortality, then let’s do something. Let us perform some kindness, buy something luxurious, have pleasure, make someone happy. Doing any of those things could be the best way to spend the time you have here on Earth. Be kind. Fight the good fight.
Show up. In that way, you are, sort of, a volunteer in your own life, keeping your conscience clean.
Karen Krizanovich began her career as a Sex Agony Aunt for Sky Magazine and writes for The Sunday Times, GQ and others. When not being admired, she is much sought after.