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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.

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