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facts & arguments

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“Sit on your hands tonight, Green.”

Grabbing my purse, I smile at my husband and head out the door to yet another committee meeting.

His words are delivered playfully, but his tongue-in-cheek message resonates. The problem, for both him and me, is that I will probably ignore his directive.

I will likely get caught up in whatever purpose this particular meeting is for, and before you can say “Who seconds this motion?” I will have raised my hand and offered my time, energy and goodwill to yet another cause.

I am a serial volunteer. And it’s wearing me down.

My compulsion to help out was honed early, through watching my mother.

Though saddled with four children, Mom still found time to be secretary of our condominium board, a parent volunteer at school and a leader of my Brownies troop.

A stay-at-home mom (they were just called “moms” back then), she may have found that the time she gave outside the home fulfilled a sense of community, purpose, duty and satisfaction that she was hard-pressed to find cleaning up after four brats all day.

Also, a break from said brats a few nights a month must have been a pretty good motivator for my mother to flex her volunteerism muscles.

So the gene is there, and has been asserting its dominance for as long as I can remember.

As a kid, my volunteerism was sweet and disorganized, but as I grew into a fully-realized, overachieving adult, it took shape – and took over.

I travelled to Israel to volunteer on a kibbutz for eight weeks when I was 23 years old.

I stayed for eight months.

I began my first paid job shortly after my return from the Middle East, joining the Toronto-based record company Solitudes as a copywriter.

There, I joined the social committee, the health and safety committee and the lunch committee.

I attended my first school council meeting when my eldest daughter was in junior kindergarten.

She is now in Grade 6. I have been the chairwoman of the council for four years.

I was invited to sit on our school board’s parent involvement committee and was co-chair by the end of the very first meeting.

Do you need someone to organize a rummage sale, a fundraising committee, an event, a breakfast club or a conference?

No, you don’t, because I’ve already volunteered!

Celia Krampien for The Globe and Mail

But volunteerism should be a two-way street that, at its best, satisfies the needs of both the giver and the getter. I’m no longer at my best.

I’m burnt out. I’m beginning to dislike the people I have to work with.

So, why bother?

My family made a huge change five years ago: We left Toronto and resettled in Chatham, Ont., a sleepy town three hours southwest of T.O., to work from home and devote more time to our children and our community.

Volunteering allowed me to quickly make friends and figure out how things worked out here in the cornfields. So, I’m fulfilling a pledge.

The other reason I can’t seem to stop volunteering is because I’m a bit of a control freak. I admit it.

I love being in the know, and the rush from seeing a project executed well is addictive.

So I start another project. And another.

If I were a different person, I might have a Fortune 500 company or a bestselling novel by now, but I prefer to save my A-type propensities for yard sales and pasta dinners.

Despite the sarcasm, my husband is supportive, and not wholly immune to some of the same volunteerism inclinations. He is a member of our city’s municipal-heritage committee, takes part in community historical events and never says no to a relative in need.

I am also fully enabled by my older sister, who taught me everything I know about stretching myself too thin, and a best friend out here who has an even harder time saying no to things than I do.

But if no good deed goes unpunished, it seems my time has come.

I can still manage projects, but frankly I am too tired to be as diplomatic as I should be with people.

My patience is wearing as thin as the soles on my shoes, and every time I slow down, I get sick.

Strolling through the proverbial forest, the one where volunteers provide a rich canopy of helpfulness for the community, I can no longer see the trees.

Or perhaps I am the tree, rooted in place and unable to appreciate the symbiosis that must occur in order for us all to thrive.

So tonight, as I perch on a seat in a school library, or a church basement or a quiet café, sipping my tea and making notes, I will try.

I’ll try to think of my comically overflowing schedule and my desire to shift more of my time back home, to my family and myself.

I’ll think of my husband’s goodnatured but apt comment.

And this time, for once, I’ll just sit this one out.

Karen Green lives in Chatham, Ont.