Giving Until It Hurts

It’s 7:00 A.M. and I struggle to shake the sleep from my body. My eyes are a bleary red not unlike those of the Terminator and the bags under them give the impression of mascara. The symptoms are of my own doing, I had a commitment that kept me up until 2:30 A.M and another that required I assist a soup kitchen at 8:00 A.M. The result was less than four hours of sleep. My body was being less than cooperative, manifesting the aforementioned symptoms in an effort to push me back to the warm embrace of my bed.

Something overrides the desire for comfort however and I push myself into my car (after downing enough coffee to make the world seem like it has entered bullet-time) and start my day’s commitments. The commitments I subscribe to are of my own doing; I choose on occasion to overbook my body and pay the price for it; sometimes through physical symptoms and sometimes through a breakdown in communication as my mind slows from sleep deprivation. For prime examples of my incoherent blather be sure to check out articles published on this blog, particularly those posted after midnight.

So why do I do it? Why do I (and many other generous volunteers) place ourselves in discomfort in the service of others? Beyond the obvious response of building a better world through volunteering our time, I personally feel that adding discomfort helps to fortify the mind against discomfort.

We have a natural tendency to avoid discomfort. This makes sense as keeping my hand on a hot element only succeeds in hurting myself, but reduces the amount I can do for myself or others. I have yet to hear a compelling argument for a burnt hand leading to increased productivity and in this context, the adaptation to avoid situations that produce discomfort.

The trouble is that from my own experiences, my mind has difficulty differentiating between tasks that threaten discomfort without reward (putting your hand on a hot element) v.s tasks that provide tangible rewards with a cost (e.g. volunteering at a soup kitchen and feeling some groggy effects throughout the day…and maybe cutting a few days off my lifespan). There is value in disciplining the mind to override the urge to pursue comfort and endure a bit of pain to accomplish tasks that matter. That doesn’t mean you have to be a sadist about pushing yourself to the limit, it just means that occasionally you should be prepared to accept the trade of mental malaise for accomplishing a task that you value.

While at the soup kitchen today, a fellow volunteer with an aged and tired face weighed down with the artificial mascara of sleep deprivation mentioned that she had received a severe blister from all the food preparation she did on her last shift. I stared back at her with my bleary, mascara-laden eyes and a crooked smile betraying a man whose mental presence was outsourced somewhere on Jupiter and replied “sometimes you have to give until it hurts”. We both laughed at my incoherent blather, as judging by tiredness in her eyes, we were on the same page mentally.

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