The Philosophical Question of Volunteering…

It was our second to last evening in India and my mother and I were strolling through the streets of Cochin, Kerala in search of some last-minute souvenirs.

After buying two of my friends singing bowls (an instrument used to help with meditation) on my previous trip to India, I had my heart set on purchasing one of these spiritually unique contraptions (I like to think of myself as quite the spiritualist).

We meandered through a number of shops selling vibrant, embroidered saris, kaleidoscopic Aladdin pants, bejeweled bangles, intricately carved Buddhas and luxurious, silk scarves – but to my disappointment there were no singing bowls in sight.

However, just as I was about to start kicking myself for not buying one of the hundreds I had seen in Rishikesh, I spotted an unusual looking shop hidden behind a group of tuk tuks.

With the calming smell of sandalwood incense dancing its way from the shop through the air of Cochin and the soothing sound of tranquil meditation music flowing through a set of speakers, I was sure I had hit the jack pot – and that I did in many more ways than one singing bowl…

As my Mother and I entered this captivating shop we were greeted by a room full of rustic antiques and obscure textiles.

Before we had a chance to admire the shelves and shelves of artifacts which lined the walls like a library, an eager shop keeper whisked us upstairs to see ‘his collection’ of clothing, crystals AND SINGING BOWLS.

After a quick browse and a strenuous bartering session I was finally the owner of a beautiful Hindi inscribed singing bowl.

However, as we wandered towards the door we were stopped in our tracks by the shop assistant…

‘Madam, please tell me why it is you are you in India’.

A little taken aback by this random question, I explained to the man how I had visited India before to volunteer with children in the slums of Jaipur, and that this was a return visit to show my Mother how beautiful his country is.

After a few more minutes of quizzing me about my previous time in India the man asked me a question which completely took me by surprise –

‘Madam, don’t you think volunteering is very selfish?’

Selfish?!… I know!

My first thought was, isn’t volunteering one of the most selfless acts you can do?

You are paying to help others less fortunate than yourself.

You are dedicating your time to provide others with the privileges that we take for granted such as, health care and education…

You want to, as Gandhi stated, ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’.

Yet, this Indian man believed differently and I was beyond intrigued to hear his reasoning for this bold exclamation.

Was he being ungrateful?

Was he being rude?

Was he a man who just disliked tourists?


Was he absolutely right?

I always associated volunteering with helping others however; after leaving this enlightening conversation I couldn’t help but think about all of the selfish reasons us westerners choose to volunteer.

We want to visit their country and volunteering is a good way to see and understand their culture.

It makes us feel good about ourselves.

It looks good on our CV (cynical but true).

It makes travelling on your own in an unfamiliar country less daunting (one of my reasons for doing a volunteering programme).


It leaves us feeling like a ‘better person’ with unforgettable memories.

I couldn’t work out whether this shop assistant was making a dig at me for volunteering or whether he was simply opening my eyes to the reality of humanity.

Despite being left with this philosophical debate boomeranging around in my head and whether volunteering is a selfish act, it in no way takes away from the beaming smile I get every time I think of the children I taught and the memories I created during my 6 week volunteering programme in Jaipur, India.

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As Joey states in ‘Friends’ (you must all know the episode…), is any act of kindness really selfless?

What do you all think?

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  • Reply The Perks of Volunteering | The Globe-Trotting Graduate

    […] above have been, to put it rather bluntly, daymmmm right selfish (check out my post on the ‘Philosophical Question of Volunteering’, where I have written about this in a bit more […]

    April 11, 2015 at 10:09 am
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