I volunteer most weeks at a nursing home near Duke. I am painting portraits of the residents there; I work on sketches when I visit. I decided to do this because I needed to find a way to connect art to medicine. I needed a nice bullet point on my pre-med resume. I did not say this when I started. I said I wanted to get better at painting and to alleviate loneliness in the world. And I do want to do those things. But I think they are motivations I gained after starting the project, rather than when beginning it. And if I am honest, it is not as often the desire to do good as the desire to succeed in my career that gets me out of bed to bike to the nursing home.
Being old in a nursing home is lonely. You are like an adult treated like a child. You are confined to a dysfunctional body. The outside world is moving fast and busy around you, while you are stuck in a tiny room with a TV and a wheelchair. Periodically visitors pop in and throw you a friendly hour of social contact, but they have to venture back to the world that can’t accommodate your old age. A lot of people can’t hear you, or you can’t hear them. You no longer have a chance to impress your importance on other people; you are entirely at their mercy for care and conversation.
For a while I wondered if what I was doing mattered. I could not understand the woman I was sketching. I only asked her yes or no questions because she grew visibly frustrated when I didn’t grasp her longer answers. I was relieved when her sisters visited and also couldn’t understand. Once I visited while she was eating breakfast, and I felt horribly invasive as I sketched her with pancake and grits residue on her face. But I couldn’t go at any other time that week, and I needed my volunteer hour.
I hear many people at Duke complaining about the activities and classes they engage in just for their resume or major. While some of that is necessary, I wonder if my whole life will follow this trajectory of fake interest. I want to be a doctor partially because I want to help others. I am scared my path is not truly out of desire to do good in the world, but the intention of goodness is a cover for less honorable motivations.
Does it matter if I do good things but don’t actually care if they help others? When I go to the nursing home, I do alleviate loneliness. But I also have a lot of power in the lives of the residents there. Once the women I was sketching waved her sisters out of the way so I could get a clear view for sketching as she beamed with pride, evidently pleased that she was important enough to be drawn. Sometimes when I visit, her happiness shines. She is careful to be still so I can keep sketching. My visits matter to her; they are a bright spot in the monotony of the nursing home that encompasses her whole life.
But for me, they are a once a week ordeal, slightly uncomfortable and saddening. Often I fear my older years will end in a similar place, and so I view visits with a bit of trepidation. Some weeks I am too busy to visit. It’s a small concession for my schedule, but I know it is a disappointment to the woman I visit. I have so much influence over her happiness, and it feels shallow that my intentions are somewhat driven by my resume. I also can’t dedicate many hours to painting her portrait because it is ancillary to my academics. I am a replacement for a friend for this women, but she began as a “project” for me.
I do care about this woman’s happiness after visiting so many times. But I know she cares more about our interactions than I do—I wonder if she knows too. What if everything I do is secretly in service of my personal success? I feel that if that’s the case, I can’t truly do good in the world.
But after seeing this woman’s happiness and other instances of altruism, I do want to do good. It feels wrong to speak of helping others while partially molding your exterior character. I’m still not sure how I feel about the tension between those two things, and I’m especially not sure if there’s a good way to resolve it. I suppose that all we can strive for is to land on the right side of the conflict.
Camille Wilder is a Trinity sophomore. Her column usually runs on alternate Wednesdays.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.