Learn something about yourself: Volunteer

This week a world renown “radically open art competition” opened for its 7th year in my hometown. This isn’t going to be a critique on art, the art on display or the competition. I know what I like, what draws my eye and spurs my senses and invokes a reaction — good and/or bad. I don’t know enough about art to try critique it; but be highly critical, oh yes. This is about something else entirely.

Over the last months and year I have re-learned something about myself: I like to volunteer. I like to be a Volunteer.  ArtPrize needs hundreds of volunteers. This is also the time of year my body decides it wants to start hibernation mode with the shorter daylight hours and cooler temperatures. I signed up because I think volunteering is fun (yes, really!) and to force myself to get up, moving and out of the house for something I can’t put off.  I worked three 3-hour shifts this week with several more planned over the next two weeks.

One of the better parts of volunteering for a large-scale event like this is there are many different areas in which to get involved.  This also means it provides a lot of opportunities to people watch, and even talk to some of the people you see.

Yesterday I had the privilege of hosting a drop-in art studio — open to all ages, not just children — in a building which had been a display venue the last six years. This year it, and the most popular outdoor space did not have any art entries — at all. There was a man working as a greeter and disability awareness advocate in the same lobby. During a lull for both of us he wheeled himself over to introduce himself. He was David.  We began talking about ArtPrize, and some of the comments he had been getting from people.  He spoke with much passion about how disappointed he (and many others) were that there wasn’t art in this building, in the outdoor space next door, or in the river — all of which have had something on display all 6 years prior. He was clearly irritated at this oversight, or lack of participation and the disappointment it was creating. And the confusion!  Oh, the confusion!

I don’t recall exactly what I said to him. I did mention I was glad there wasn’t anything outdoors next door as it was one of the only places people would come to see any art and not go explore many other venues at all. I told him I had overheard someone, who I presumed worked in the building, say that a renovation project was planned, and said I guessed the building owners didn’t want to have construction dust and debris become a problem for any of the art or artists. We parted shortly after this brief chat and I didn’t give our conversation another thought.

David came back over to me just before he was set to leave. I thought he was going to say a friendly good-bye and be on his way. He did not.  He apologized. Apologized! I was instantly confused, as he had not offended me, or been impolite or rude in any way.  He wanted be make sure things were “okay between us” before he left. In my stunned disbelief I don’t remember how he put it, but it was to the effect of being sorry about his opinion he expressed earlier.

It wasn’t necessary to apologize for speaking his opinion, and I told him so. Going on, I said that I was not offended in any way.

He has a right to his opinion, and people may not always agree with it, but that’s what makes it an opinion.  I am not easily offended when someone shares their opinion.  What does that say of me, and more importantly, of so many others he has interacted with?

Indeed, what does that say of our society when one man can not safely express his thoughts and feelings without fear of backlash or retaliation? I told David I try to avoid controversial debate, in social media in particular, as it usually devolves into someone calling others names. I’m sorry but you’ve completely invalidated your entire argument as soon as the middle school version of you stepped out and called me Stupid. Actually, I’m not sorry.  If that’s the only and final argument you have to a debate then I know I’ve won.

Carry on, David, with your opinions.  Let’s hope we can relearn civil discourse before it’s too late.

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