Is it service? Or self-serving?

The best part of road trips with friends you haven't seen in awhile is the chance to dive into topics you usually don't have time to discuss. That was the case over Labor Day with my friend Michael, when we passed the miles between Sodus Bay and Buffalo discussing the nature of community service.

(This was after stopping for ice cream and before using the GPS to find out if every state had a town named "Mumford." For the record, it does not.)

Michael's question kicked it off: "In your experience, are the people you meet while volunteering doing it because it makes a difference, or because it makes them feel good?"

Ah, my experience. I started to review the "volunt-eras" of my life:

1. Childhood. Little Julia has a sense of right and wrong. Love your neighbor as yourself. And don't say mean things.

2. Tweenhood. Julia is expected to put in 50 hours of community service to receive Confirmation. She briefly links service to mild torture.

3. Adolescence. Julia learns about social justice, specifically the Catholic Church's themes. The consistent ethic of life and the firm belief in all human dignity stick with her as a grown-up version of "love your neighbor as yourself." She occasionally says mean things, but tries to compensate by visiting the elderly ... until play practice takes over.

4. College. Big girl Julia now gets to make her own choices. So she keeps going to church. She also joins Habitat, which takes over her life for the next 3.5 years. In that time, Julia goes on four alternative spring breaks to four states, builds several complete houses, and raises enough money to build another in Syracuse. She then collapses from exhaustion -- but not before recognizing the visible impact her work can have on a human life, and by extension the world.

5. Young adulthood, Philly edition. Julia gets her IMS on by coordinating monthly meals at Manna on Main St. She gets a serious kick from planning healthy, well-balanced menus, and resigns herself to eternal dorkhood.

6. Young adulthood, DC edition. Julia tutors ESL classes through her parish 1) because it's near work, 2) it's a great way to meet people, 3) it's a new skill to learn, and 4) she gets to yammer on for 45 minutes every Tuesday to a captive audience.

And that was just my personal arc. I then thought of the hundreds of fellow servers I had met over the years. Many I knew came because of religious or humanist convictions. Others came for the fun. Quite a few saw it only as resume-building. And several didn't want to be there at all.

But a funny thing happened with these disparate origins. Soon, most of these people's stories threaded together and became a new narrative, one which chronicled a common purpose and mission. No matter what they came for, people stayed for the social justice (my words, not theirs). They stayed because their effort and time grew to something greater -- a difference. This was service at its purest.

And looking back, I finally saw what separated successful, lasting volunteer opportunities from the DOAs. When people felt under-utilized, when their work was 18 steps removed from the visible impact, when they couldn't see how any of it mattered, the entire operation faltered. Folks grew disillusioned. Their intentions narrowed, and volunteering became a superficial tic on a checklist of what's expected, not what's chosen. This was only self-serving.

"Both," I said to Michael. "Most people I had the privilege of meeting did it because it made a difference. They believed in social justice. But when done right, it made them feel good too. And that's what made the behavior -- and the lessons -- stick."

At the very least, my answer jived with altruism's roots in evolutionary biology. Essentially, these studies say, we care to survive -- hence why a positive volunteering effect would have a Pavlovian response.

The idea that we're hard-wired to care, and don't choose to care, can be difficult to reconcile with the religious concept of free will. In a way, it takes the moral fun out of volunteering (for those who are inclined to discern moral fun), since much of the "feel good" quotient comes from a sense of following a higher calling, rather than a primordial drive to ensure our species continues.

But does it really matter how we get there, as long as we GET there? Be it instinctual or God-given -- or both -- the outcome is the same: By doing good for each other, we all do well together.

This concept is at the root of ServiceNation, a nascent movement poised to hit the big time this Thursday and Friday. (FYI: I'll be live-blogging it over at Social Citizens if you care to follow, and will post my personal reflections here later.) It's the reason I chose to reroute my career path to the nonprofit sector. And it's why I continue to serve -- not because I'm told it's right, but because I believe it's right.

So what would you have answered Michael?