I recently started volunteering for a nonprofit arts organization benefiting inner-city kids, which has been great fun. So far, my responsibilities have been very limited. I basically sat around with a couple of people, drew pictures, and then colored them in with magic markers. It was refreshing to discover I could make a difference in some kids’ lives simply by drawing a picture of a group of cartoon rats being poisoned, and then spending the next several minutes hogging a Sea Foam Green marker until another one of the volunteers claimed. “There’s no such thing as private property. Those are God’s markers.” Touché. I was left with no choice but to capitulate to the irrefutable logic of her argument, and issued my formal surrender by throwing the Sea Foam Green marker into a toilet and screaming, “God says, ‘fetch!’”
I like that the spirit of volunteerism can be awakened with the quiet solitude of coloring. And I like that kids might shoot less drugs into their eye sockets and penises because of this nonprofit group. But at its most selfish level, I’m probably just volunteering because it makes me feel very good. Of course, urinating for a very long time after swimming in the ocean also makes me feel very good, but it’s a different kind of good. More diluted, I guess, because there are usually no disadvantaged inner-city kids around to witness it. Usually.
Of course, since my single evening of helping out (more will follow, I’m sure, providing there are more fun things to draw), I’ve been doing that awful thing where I’ve been telling absolutely everyone – including, as of this sentence, you – about my work with this nonprofit arts group. Part of it is designed to incite a similar sense of responsibility in my peers but, just barely beneath that brittle crust of civic-mindedness, is the rich, earthy loam of my own self-righteousness, crawling with worms and bugs.
I’m even finding very unsubtle ways to work it into conversations, when I know it’s perfectly wrong and shallow (and obvious) to do so. I sincerely can’t help myself. Someone will be talking to me about anything – relationships, stress, a movie they just saw – and I’ll let it slip out against my better judgment. “Oh, you saw Chronicles of Riddick last night? Man, I’d love to see that next Tuesday night, but I’m volunteering at the blah blah blee bloo.” (I should also point out that I use the word “volunteering” a lot to describe my involvement with this group, when I could just as easily say, “I’m drawing a picture of ham, and then coloring it so it looks more ham-like.” It’s sort of like when someone says, “I’m a writer,” instead of simply stating the truth: “I have a blog and sometimes I link to a conservative news story and comment on it with a twelve-word equivalent of a sarcastic eye-roll.”)
Do people generally experience this lack of control? Behaving poorly despite total self-awareness? I always assume when others brag about something or telegraph a sense of great self-satisfaction, that this must be occurring purely on a subconscious level, rather than manifesting from an acknowledged but uncontrollable compulsion. Conveniently, this assumption has allowed me to feel better about myself, since I get to observe and dissect a character flaw to which the other person seems completely oblivious.
But I think I’ve been mistaken all along because, more often than not, I’m perfectly conscious of my self-righteousness, my mendacity, my hubris-disguised-as-self-deprecation; I just can’t seem to repress the urge to express them. In fact, just the other day I was talking to my friend, The Guy From The White Stripes, about this very same subject. He laughed his smoky laugh, told me not to analyze my life so much, and pressed a CD of some new White Stripes demos into my hand. Then I wiped some fresh soapsuds from the tip of his nose, and we returned to our task at hand: washing a leper’s disgusting feet.