Today, I go to work my one Sunday a month at the Lantern Bookshop. I have been volunteering at the Lantern for over 15 years. My volunteer work there is service, but it is not selfless. The Lantern serves the community in a variety of ways: (1) it provides a place for like-minded community members to meet; we’ve had the same customers and workers for decades; (2) it provides creates scholarship funds for deserving young women to go to college, when they otherwise would not be able to afford to go; (3) by participating in the cycle of don’t throw away and reuse what we don’t need, it is good for the environment; (4) it creates a safe space for older workers to continue to be useful; (5) it keeps open an independent bookstore in a time when small businesses are hard-pressed to survive. The work is not selfless for me because I adore books. I like reading them, looking at them, exploring lightly ones that are far enough from my usual interests that I won’t commit the time to sit down and read. I like being in an environment where all the talk is of books.
I started at the Lantern as a way of giving back to my college. My scholarship came from the proceeds of the New York companion to the Lantern. Having limited my work to just one Sunday a month, I was able to keep at it. If it had been a bigger commitment, I am sure I would have found it too much after a period of years, given all the other things I do. Because I could manage the time commitment, and I enjoy the work, I have kept at it. It is not my only volunteer work, but it is a steady component of my place in the community.
A couple of years ago, I was with a group of yogis who were discussing a potential requirement to engage in seva or “selfless service.” A number of people argued that unless the work made you uncomfortable, unless it stretched your emotional and personal boundaries, the work somehow did not count. I have done volunteer work that has made me uncomfortable. I’ve done work with the elderly sick and the institutionalized neglected. I’ve served on a community board of directors where the focus was on a contentious neighborhood issue. I have grown from that work, but I was only able to do it for a year or two or three before needing to move on to something else.
Is work more “selfless” if it is difficult? Is it less selfless to do work that one frankly enjoys than work from which one derives the satisfaction of “doing good” because it is difficult and dirty? I don’t know the answer. The yoga texts would seem to indicate, I think, that if one does service for any form of gratification then it is not selfless. I would argue that it is best to do the work — with commitment — and forget about whether it also pleases. If the community benefits, the work should be done.