People aren’t always, or ever, who you want them to be

One of the things you will learn if you spend a year trying to save the world is that there’s a good portion of the world that has no interest in being saved and actually has, on average, a rather marked resistance to it. And the people who are working along side of you often have motivations, attitudes and behaviors that are not what you would prefer or expect them to be.

Now, this has nothing to do with anything happening right now, or anyone in particular that I’m dealing with. I’m speaking purely in generalities here, because if there’s one thing a prospective Americorps member should know before they join, it’s that the vision of saving the world and the reality of that vision are often two vastly different things.

The fact is, for most people (and in this context, we’ll consider organizations and communities to be titular “people”) change is scary, labor intensive, inconvenient, painful, expensive, risky and short on tangible and immediate returns on investment. That doesn’t in any way negate the necessity for such change. But it gives you a better idea of what you’re going up against when you are, or represent, the change agent.

Many people join world-changing orgs like Americorps with idealistic visions of doing good to, with and for a joyous, grateful and equally idealistic people. The reality is, some of the people you serve will be surly, tired, frustrated, indifferent, argumentative, resistant and even violently opposed to being helped. Some of the people you serve with will be selfish, lazy, manipulative, shallow and completely self-centered. And some of the people you work for will be joyless, self-absorbed, hidebound, wrongheaded and even actively malicious.

Of course, the opposite is also true – some of those you help will be grateful, cooperative, welcoming and generous, some of those you work for will give Robin Hood a run for his altruistic props and some of the people you work for will be dedicated visionaries who aren’t afraid to go in swinging for what they believe in.

In all likelihood, you’ll get a fairly even mixture of both. Because the fact is, life is…well…life. People are who they are and being a part of something special like Americorps doesn’t exempt you from that. You run across people who make you grind your teeth and make you rethink your commitment, and some of these will be people who are in charge of making your term worthwhile…or not. You’ll run into situations where no one wants you there, doing what you’re doing, even though it’s clear that what you’re doing is good and right and needed, because of turf wars, insecurities or just plain fear of the unfamiliar. You’ll be ignored – or worse, targeted. You’ll be given the task of saving the world one-handed with little or no resources, then vilified when you miss the goal by the tiniest sliver of optimal results.

I’ve gotten lucky on this tour, in that my team and the org we serve with is apparently composed pretty much entirely of idealistic, visionary types who are nonetheless long on practicality and short on blithering idiocy. And, by and large, the same is holding true for those I’m helping as well.

OTOH, in my previous Americorps incarnation, I didn’t get so lucky. There wasn’t any out and out malicious intent or anything, but we had more than one member who no one could figure out why they were bothering with Americorps, given their attitude toward the work we were doing and their complaints about the sacrifices involved, and we had more than one person at the org level who the rest of us felt could disappear off the face of the earth to only positive effect. The only saving grace was the near uniformity of the wonderfulness of the people we served (who more than once kept us all sane with their generosity of spirit and positive attitudes).

People are people and this isn’t going to change just because you’re dedicating a year of your life to doing good. There are just as many screw-ups, NIMBYs, slackers, demotivators, pointy-haired bosses and obliviously clue-free inDUHviduals in the world-saving biz as there is anywhere else. But you know what? The work still needs to be done.

Many religious teachings state that while we are expected to do, and held personally responsible for doing, the work set before us, we are never entitled to the expectation of a result because that is in the hands of Whomever; to take the responsibility for how it all turns out into our own hands is not only to serve out a portion of stress for ourselves over something we can’t do anything about, it is also to a large degree utter hubris for us to assume the power reserved for the Divine – that of attempting to dictate how the Universe unfolds.

In some situations there is no win, only the potential to chip away at the failure rate. In other situations, there are many wins, but never enough to keep up with the need. However, as Mother Teresa once said, “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”

And that’s the heart of the matter. If you go into Americorps to be the Fixit Fairy, expecting to be joyously greeted by welcoming hordes of flower-tossing social experiments eager to be lifted out of their dolorous circumstances by your life-giving touch, then you are in for a serious adjustment to the horizontal hold of your reality.

But if you do the work that needs doing because it needs doing, and because you can’t live with yourself if you know this and still do nothing – and you leave the worrying about the results in the hands of whatever aspect of the Divine you ascribe to – then you’ll be okay.

I just thought you should know.

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2 responses to “People aren’t always, or ever, who you want them to be

  1. this post should be attached in the application.

    This is a fantastic blog. I’ve been reading for a few weeks now. I joined the Corps in January to a State program vastly different than yours. I love what I do, but I loathe my org.

    The good moments outweigh the bad ones. I hope it stays that way throughout the year.


  2. Sorry you are having such a hard time. Sometimes it’s definitely a “focus on the work, rather than on the work environment” kinda deal.

    I really did get lucky this tour. You just never know who you’re going to be working with – even if you know and like the org, you can never tell who’s going to be joining you on your ‘corps team.

    I wish you the best of luck. Do let me know if I can be of any help. And if you check back in, would you mind dropping a note on the Big Question page? (See top of sidebar) The more contributions we can get, the easier we can make it for the next group.

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