From the World
January Sun 17, 2010
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Why would people pay good money to spend a week of their vacations working long, tiring hours, often in mundane tasks such as sweeping floors or waiting tables?
I had wondered about this ever since, a few years ago, I came across descriptions of the curiously-titled Meeting for Friendship Among the Peoples. A week-long cultural festival of massive proportions. 700,000 plus attendees. Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, Agnostics. Renowned personalities: Pope John Paul II, Josef Ratzinger, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama , Emmanuel Levinas, Lech Walesa, José Carreras, Simone Weil, George Smoot, Steven Beckwith, and more. Exhibitions and presentations on an extraordinarily vast array of topics—astronomy, agriculture, chemistry, economics, history, international development, literature, medicine, politics, theology. Soccer tournaments and bicycle races. And all supported by the dedication of more than 3000 volunteers. But what, I wondered, generates such a commitment?
“Come and see,” people would tell me. And so I did. I attended the Meeting in 2008, and in the process, interviewed nearly 100 volunteers between ages 18 to 80, in an attempt to understand what the event means to the people who sustain it.
One curious finding was the difference in the ways in which younger and older volunteers spoke about why they volunteered.
Younger folks I spoke to primarily insisted on the pragmatic value of volunteering at the Meeting. For example, many claimed that the choice to volunteer was merely a way to organize their time at the Meeting: there are so many events and exhibitions that without structure, one would very easily feel exhausted. So volunteering gives you structure and routine, forcing you to make choices only with your limited free time.
I found this reason odd. While nearly everyone I spoke to said they were struck—even deeply moved—by exhibits and “encounters” they attended, many volunteers said that they didn’t get to see all the presentations and exhibits they wanted to. Many, during their breaks, were so exhausted that they would lie sprawled on couches or on the floor. Some said the hotels they were staying in were ghastly, sometimes with roaches and no running water, so they were left very exhausted by the end of the event. Yet, they insisted, it was all worth it. But why?
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