Empathy – an inherent human trait, (save, arguably, for a few other mammals), that allows us to feel for others, without actually having shared their experiences. It can manifest itself in such simple forms as a hug, or the lending of an ear and is where, I believe, the act of volunteering derives from.
Volunteering for a cause, dates back probably before recorded history, I´m sure that long before we began keeping records there had been situations around the globe that warranted the gathering of volunteers in order to come to the aid of others in need. Some of the first records of voluntary action were of women in the 12th century forming groups and setting up hospitals in order to help nurse soldiers wounded in battle. In Portugal, Queen Leonor, widow of King João II, with the backing of King Manuel I, formed the Santa Casa da Misericórdia, initially as a way to assist rural migrants that flocked to Lisbon, at the height of the Portuguese discoveries, looking for work. Services included feeding the hungry, taking in orphans, healing the sick, educating, consoling, burying the dead and even visiting prisoners. It soon spread to the entire country and still thrives today, with a large part of its efforts dedicated to caring for the elderly. Throughout the world there are scores of volunteer firefighters, on call 24/7, ready to spring into action. These selfless individuals drop whatever they may be doing, in order quickly respond to an emergency such as an accident or fire.
Many of us have experienced going to someone’s aid. Our humanity compels the vast majority of us to help, when we perceive someone, or even and animal, to be in distress. Our brain kicks into action and we will do whatever it takes in order to help, many times without even thinking of the possible consequences to our own wellbeing. We’re wired that way. You might say it’s a defense mechanism, but in the general sense. When a human is born, it´s totally helpless and defenseless, without our parents and other care givers it would quickly succumb. Our nurturing instinct, historically attributed to mothers, is in all of us, as a natural survival tool, but not strictly for the survival of the individual. Although it may be used to help someone in a precise moment, all of humanity is benefitting from that deed. So, I believe that modern volunteering stems from humans’ incapacity to ignore the plight of others. In times of great need, even soldiers on opposing sides have been known to help one another. During floods, everyone is out stacking bags of sand. After an earthquake everyone is out combing the rubble for survivors, long before outside help arrives.
Another result of our lending a hand is that it makes one feel good. Putting a smile on someone’s face always feels good. It may be a little selfish, but in a good way. A handshake, hug, or a thank you from an appreciative individual is good for the soul.
Of course, there are other reasons people volunteer. Politicians count on vast numbers of unpaid individuals, in order to get elected. Moms and dads volunteer to help their kids’ sports teams by giving rides, coaching and providing snacks. Without these volunteers, many things we might take for granted probably wouldn’t be possible. Philanthropy is also an important aspect of our society, wealthy individuals or groups, (driven by tax incentives, guilt or a just a big heart – it’s all good), support others with their causes and their dreams, thus giving some the chance that otherwise would never exist.
As a footnote, I just read in the British newspaper, The Guardian, an article about a few dozen people on an Indonesian island who collaborated in trapping a 5-metre crocodile and freeing it from a motorcycle tire that had been stuck around its neck since 2016.
It’s all part of being human, we can’t help it.