How often do we do things for other people for nothing? Giving our time doesn’t cost anything and yet we can find it so easy to avoid getting involved, getting our hands dirty or having an effect on the problems that exist all around us.
In times gone by, in the founding of the British Empire, men were forced or ‘pressed’ into the navy though they often didn’t want to, they had no choice. The cunning way that ‘they’ did it was to go in to a Tavern where the local men were drinking. While the man wasn’t looking they would drop a shilling piece (five pence in our money) into his tankard. If he then drank the beer it was assumed under the law that he had accepted the contract to join a ship. The shilling was the sailors wage. It was known as ‘taking the King’s shilling’. The tankards were made of a metal called pewter so that the drinker could not see they shilling until they had finished the drink. This led any taverns to use glass bottomed tankards so that the shilling might be seen before the beer was drunk.
As you can imagine a man who had been pressed in this way was not a very enthusiastic sailor and did not perform very well. A phrase appeared in the language of the navy,
“One volunteer is worth ten pressed men”.
When we volunteer to do something we are positively engaged and committed to whatever it is, we want to do it. When we are forced to do things that we do not want to do we do not do them well and we just become resentful and disengaged and not very productive.
Ed and I were moved to do this weeks podcast on volunteering because today on December 5th is the international day for volunteers. That got us talking about the idea of giving our time, and maybe money, to help others.
I am struck by the idea that we have, as a society, devolved our responsibility for looking after each other to councils, charities, the government and even businesses. When we lived in extended families, villages and communities we naturally looked after each other. At some point during urbanisation, perhaps because everyone was working so hard and for so many hours during industrialisation we lost the ability to care for one another and passed the responsibility to the official bodies such as the councils.
Them and us
Once we give away a part of what we do we no longer own it. The responsibility is no longer ‘ours’ it has become ‘theirs’. They have become the mythical ‘they’. “They will sort it out”, “They wouldn’t let that happen”. Along with our responsibility we gave away our power as both individuals and as communities.
So that now when the house next door catches fire we do not all run and get a bucket or a hose pipe and put the fire out, we dial 999 and then sit back complaining about how long the fire service is taking to attend, as we watch the house burn down.
We allow our town and villages to fill with litter waiting for ‘them’ (the council) to come and clean them. We allow children to run riot waiting for ‘them’ (the teachers) to discipline them and teach them some manners. And, now it would seem that we are prepared to stand back and watch a policeman or woman being kicked unconscious rather than intervene.
We often hear about ‘the nanny state’ that is taking over all the decision making from us individuals, well the reality is that it is here. The more responsibility we give to ‘them’ the less we have for ourselves and the more helpless we become.
We are at a point where we have given away so much of our responsibility for who we are, what we are and for what we do that we have become progressively more helpless. It is so easy for us to become the victims of bullies, thugs, criminals, politicians, business people, religious leaders, terrorists, the list is endless. They are all the mythical ‘them’.
Guess what? The ‘them’ is actually ‘us’.
When we finally take responsibility for the world that we live in it will change. Until that point we will remain victims. Rather than complaining about the world and the state that it is in, about pollution, waste, food, greenhouse gases and so on we could get off our butts and do something about it.
I note that the French have just taken to the streets to protest about the introduction of certain laws and, guess what?, the laws have been rescinded. It appended here when Thatcher tried to impose the ‘Poll Tax’ and the British people took to the streets and guess what? it was rescinded. The same would be true of the crazy Brexit situation that we are in. We do not have to do it.
Volunteering is taking back power
When we volunteer we are taking back the power that we have devolved to ‘them’ and using it ourselves. When we volunteer and simply get things done while others are in council chambers or parliament talking about it, we have reclaimed our power.
If we all gave as little as one hour a week in volunteering to help, whatever the cause, we could transform the world that we live in. We could have clean streets, food for the homeless all the lonely visited, the list is also endless. We could clean up polluted sites and improve our general environment. Alternatively we could sit back, do nothing and moan about ‘them’ and how ‘they’ are not getting it done.
We are all them.
Take care, be happy and look after each other.