We're all feeling a little supererogatory these days
PHILOSOPHERS have a word for a good deed that one is not obligated to do: supererogatory. Many of us have especially felt the urge to do something supererogatory since Hurricane Katrina.
Across the country, through Craigslist, the Salvation Army and MoveOn.org, ordinary Americans are opening their houses to hurricane survivors.
But when I think of community service, I think of a classmate of mine in high school who used to teach blind children how to ice skate. They learned their moves to the rhythm of her clapping hands.
I tell this to friends and they laugh, just as I laughed when I first heard it. I don't laugh because I hate blind children, or because I think vision impairment is laughable. I laugh because my classmate's community service was so very good, because it seems impossibly kind.
The particular fantasy that I entertain, in which I physically help rebuild ruined cities and heal the sick, runs into the slight obstacle that is my complete unfitness for duty. I have no stamina, not to mention no training in construction or medicine.
At least my acquaintance knew how to ice skate.
I look back on some of my organized community service, dutifully logged for schools and clubs. At my local library, I shelved books, often sneaking off to read them, and cut construction paper leaves to decorate bulletin boards. I've answered phones for public broadcasting pledge drives, volunteered in a computer lab, and I've written public service announcements. I even try to help cats by donating to Fix Our Ferals.
But there's no heroism in my past, nothing epic.
My skills don't justify my delusions of grandeur.
And why would they? I took the liberal arts path through college and landed in menial customer service jobs. I've gotten used to having trouble finding a job, but my lack of altruistic abilities disturbs me. The critical thinking and analysis skills I've learned help me help others in very abstract, intellectual ways. I want to learn a trade that will be useful on the scene the next time disaster strikes.
What could I do? I could make use of my existing skills. I could be an ambitious capitalist and grow my disposable income, then give many thousands of dollars each year in donations for good works. Then I could hold decadent press conferences, featuring chocolate fountains and booze-spouting statues, listing off the names of cats I've neutered and cheerful multi-family dwellings I've built — indirectly, of course.
But where's the thrill in that? If I get rich, plaque-worthy donations will become de rigueur, not supererogatory at all. What's more, the abstract nature of donating money clashes with the altruistic urge instead of sating it.
Our compassion comes from our cool minds and our warm hearts, and there's a reason they call cash cold.
So I have a sneaking suspicion that my future in unpaid public service lies in skills I already possess and in direct face-to-face contact with the people (or animals) I tangibly help.
So I can already suspect where I'm headed, since there's a certain species of volunteerism I have found sprouting within me for two years.
I am going to end up in a homemade uniform in the BART station at SFO, explaining to tourists how to get to the cable cars. I am going to end up patrolling Market Street, in an orange safety vest festooned with patriotic chintz, telling the people with maps how to get to Fisherman's Wharf. I am going to end up as a roving kiosk explaining the Bay Area's public transit systems to the visitors who help keep our economy going. And it will seem foolish, and slightly ridiculous, and it will feel outlandishly rewarding.
And that's how I'll know I'm on the right track.
Sumana Harihareswara's column runs Sundays in Bay Area Living. You can write to her at