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In which the law of unintended consequences comes into play

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 01 May 2013
Doing voluntary work is really interesting. There is a fascinating disconnection between what it sounds like, and what it really is. It’s not something I’ve ever done before, and, now I am deep in it, I raise my head and sniff the wind and discover all the unexpected elements that I would never have foreseen. Horseback UK
Volunteering does not sound thrilling or sexy. It is a low-profile occupation, with no red carpets or front-page headlines or glitzy razzmatazz. For some reason, I remember the words of Thoreau: beware of all enterprises that require new clothes. Voluntary work in my case certainly does not require new clothes, only some sturdy, muddy boots and fingers to type.

I think I may have associated it with kind old ladies who ran Oxfam shops or held jumble sales for a fine cause. It can also have a faintly pious, holier-than-thou aspect to it: look at me, with my Good Works, whilst you lesser mortals indulge your voluptuous pursuits. It may carry an older whiff of the churchy, the preachy, the stiff dictates of the chapel.

In fact, I discover, it is none of those things. For a start, I get far more out of it than I put in. I get the priceless feeling of looking in the glass each morning and knowing that I have done one small useful thing in the world. As I roar into middle age, I find that daily knowledge is beyond rubies.

It is also really good fun. I laugh a lot; I meet fascinating people; I have unexpected conversations. The charity for which I work, HorseBack UK, helps those who have been wounded in the service of their country. I knew hardly anything of military life before this. Now a curtain has been raised for me on a whole world of which I was almost entirely ignorant. (For a writer, this too is beyond price.)

The other thing is that there is no time to feel good or holy, because the overwhelming sense is of frenzied activity. I have to learn to fit my paid and unpaid jobs into the hours of one day. I have to develop new muscle memory: that of efficient use of time. This is entirely new and stretches me to the limit. There is no moment to pause in any kind of horrid self-congratulation.

Perhaps the most vivid example of the law of unintended consequences is that it serves as a most potent antidote to vanity. All writers are a little vain, and there is nothing particularly wrong in that. It is one of the fuels which keeps the engine of ambition firing. On the other hand, too much ego, excusable and even faintly charming in the very young, is rather revolting in the lady of a certain age. This work drowns ego in one cold bucket of water.

It’s partly because all the writing I do for HorseBack is not under my own name. If I do manage to turn a finely honed sentence, I will get no public credit for it. The reward is not critical praise, but the private knowledge that something useful has been achieved. In the case of grant applications, my words may translate into actual, countable cash.

There is also the acute consciousness that none of this is about me; I am subsumed into an organisation which is much, much bigger and more important than I. I find this a chastening and refreshing corrective.

It also helps marvellously with first-world guilt, an idiot condition from which I have suffered from a young age. I used to assuage it with direct debits and purchases of the Big Issue. Now I can put this slightly neurotic tendency to some pointful use.

The funny thing is that all this came about through the merest shimmer of chance. It was not part of my life plan. Through whim, circumstance and the mere fact of geography, this thing arrived, almost gift-wrapped, at my feet, and I feel profoundly lucky. Fortune spun her wheel, and came up smiling.

The law of unintended consequences

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley has not set their biography yet
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 06 February 2013
About five months ago, I started volunteering for a local charity. I did not just wake up one morning and think: I must now do Good Works. It all happened quite organically.

Three miles up the road from me is a remarkable organisation called HorseBack UK. I have mentioned it here before, but it bears repeating. It does the rather amazing thing of using horses to rehabilitate wounded servicemen and women. It works with people who have everything from double amputation to acute post-traumatic stress. I run out of adjectives when I think of what it is they do there. I want to shout and hang out flags. They are absolutely bloody brilliant.

A veteran working with one of the American Quarter HorsesA veteran working with one of the American Quarter Horses

I met the people who set up the charity, quite by chance. I liked them; I was interested in what they did. I went along to visit. I started thinking that just sending a donation was not enough. I wanted to do something. I know a bit about horses, but they did not really need that sort of help. In the end, I offered them the one thing I can do, which is words.

It turned out, by happy chance, that they really did need words. They have to do grant proposals, produce promotional and informative literature, develop a website, and a myriad of other things that require sentences to go with them. Oh yes, I said, not a problem; of course I can do that.

The law of unintended consequences is something in which I have an enduring interest. This blithe offer had two, for me. One is that it turned into easily the most challenging writing I’ve ever done. It’s one thing writing a book or doing a blog or producing an article, in your own name. That is just about personal success; I’m afraid to say it is almost all ego. It’s quite another to produce words for an organisation which touches the actual lives of actual people.

If I get the words right, they may translate into cash, for a new project or a further programme, which may have a material effect on a person who has been blown up by an improvised explosive device. This is a very serious thing indeed, and I frown and struggle and squint over each sentence; each phrase really matters.

The second consequence is that I have become obsessed. I am in danger of becoming a charity bore. I understand now why there are those people who devote their whole lives to guide dogs or the RSPB or Amnesty International. I am like those old ladies in Agatha Christie, who are always going round the village asking for subscriptions for the church roof fund. I think about HorseBack all the time; everything else seems a tiny bit insubstantial by comparison.

It may also be my time of life. As I motor into middle age, I am falling into the platitude of wondering what it’s all about. Time is rushing past me, and I must decide what mark I wish to leave on the world. I’m not a Nobel Laureate or a stateswoman, so it will only be a tiny scratch. But I’d like it to be a good scratch.

Last year’s plan was to plant a lot of trees. I thought that would do. Someone, years after I had gone, would sit under the shade of a rowan or a beech I had planted, and take their ease. I loved the idea of that. Now I think, there is this other thing, that will mean something.

Charity is an interesting paradox. Giving to one or helping one is seen as an act of generosity or altruism. In my case, I cannot claim goodness or selflessness at all. Quite the opposite. It is they who are giving something to me. I get to feel as if I am doing something that counts a bit, even if it is only in my very small way. I get the glorious gift of feeling that my days are not wasted. And that, it turns out, is worth more than diamonds.


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