Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

If Service is the Rent We Pay, I Need a Rent Party

Marian Wright Edelman is most often cited as the source of the saying "Service is the rent we pay for living." In her book  The Measure of Our Success : Letter to My Children and Yours,  she credits her parents with teaching her this view.  Her parents may have been quoting Shirley Chisholm, or Harry Strunk whose paraphrase was engraved in stone on the front of his newspaper building, or Lord Halifax, contemporary of Churchill and Gandhi.  But the issue of provenance is less important than the compelling weight of the phrase.  Edelman goes on to say that service "is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time."

Lately, my rent has been going up.  And spare time?  What's that?

In the form of volunteer leadership in the nonprofit community organization to which my church belongs, my "rent" has risen over the past two years to take up a good half of my working hours.  The meetings I bemoan are, for the most part, occasioned by my membership in no less than six task forces, collaboratives, teams, committees and subcommittees related to the work of this organization.  I am up late, and up again early most days, discharging one obligation or another incurred as a result of this affiliation.  And I have been mostly happy to be thus engaged.

When I joined a Unitarian church after spending all of my adult life "unchurched," I welcomed the opportunity to become more involved in social justice work.  Four of my church's seven principles underscore this value.  UUs (Unitarian Universalists) "affirm and promote"  

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
In the course "Building Your Own Theology," which I finally took after about six years in my church, I constructed a personal credo centered on service. Doing peace and justice work is the major way that I have experienced anything remotely resembling "the sacred" in my life.

But I'm beginning to think I may have gone too far.  And I am having trouble placing this major consumer of time in the context of procrastination.  Is all (or some) of this absorption in the needs of others a dodge, at least partly a way to avoid working on my own goals and dreams?  Does it balloon as a result of the difficulty I have in saying no, and in setting and maintaining sensible boundaries?  Am I (shudder) globally codependent?  How do I balance "the work of this church" with the work of this woman?  Have I become, as my children assert, a "church lady?"

The amount of grumbling and swearing I've been doing this week and last, as I slog through the final details of the huge annual fundraising project I've somehow been left in charge of, are probably telling me something.  Above and beyond is where I've been going for quite a while, and I recognize the need to tether myself a bit more securely to the ground of my limited self before I leave the stratosphere.  

The way this organization (and probably most others) works, there will be precious little respite between this now-routine crisis and the next.  So, in the words of Ron Weasley,  "she needs to sort out her priorities."

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