Volunteering, selflessness and broken femurs

More than half my life ago I studied early hominids. I was fascinated by the social evolution of early humans from tool-makers, to farmers, to societies with leisure time, hobbies and beautiful trinkets.

More recently, I have stepped down from seven years of volunteering as a coach for Reading Roadrunners. It’s a role I’ve loved and I’m hugely grateful to the club for supporting me; I’m both surprised and pleased that I’ve now made coaching part of my working life.

Do these two events fit in the same blog entry? As a great advocate of Dirk Gently’s belief in the “fundamental interconnectedness of all things,” I think that they absolutely do.

Giving/volunteering is one of the well-publicised five ways to wellbeing, and it’s certainly something I have enjoyed in the context of RRs. It “gives me a sense of enormous wellbeing” to volunteer and I’m incredibly proud to have seen runners I’ve coached reach their goals, set new ones and even qualify as coaches themselves.

I know lots of people who give up their otherwise leisure time to volunteer for individuals and organisations. Locally, there are several groups who work with the town’s homeless community by providing kinship, meals and advice; many faith groups patrol Reading town centre at night, providing support to anyone who might need a hand; Reading Roadrunners and parkrun are entirely operated by volunteers. In these contexts, the volunteers play a very obvious role in supporting individuals and wider society; their work supports others to live well or pursue their hobbies, reducing illness or stress on public services (there’s another blog in that somewhere!). The relative effort of the volunteers is amplified by those who benefit: the work put in is less than the collective gain.

In early humans, evidence of healed broken bones demonstrates a similar commitment to supporting individuals for the good of the collective. If a wild mammal breaks a femur, it’s generally the end of their life. In a group where there is concern for an individual (by either another individual or the collective), the bone can heal and the individual survives. This collective action maintains an individual in the group; an individual who will have their own skills and aptitudes, even if it’s just to serve as a reminder to the collective that they all need support sometimes.

But not all volunteering is so formal.

For instance, have you ever put out your neighbour’s bin when you know they’re on holiday? What made you do that? Concern for your neighbour’s wellbeing or your not wanting to live next door to a stinky bin for a fortnight? Have you ever helped someone with a buggy on stairs at a train station? Why did you help? Did it make you feel good? And what about the impact on the person you helped?

Whether we offer our time, cash or expertise, we’re helping the collective. For me, volunteering isn’t selfless at all, provided we get more out than I put in.

#anthropology #coaching #running #volunteering

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