“Don’t spend six months travelling Africa. Don’t bike across Canada to raise awareness about world hunger. Don’t go to Cambodia to volunteer at an orphanage. Stay put and work on fixing problems at home, including your own.”
This is the advice Claire Brownell, a journalist for the Windsor Star, has to offer my generation of eager-eyed youth who, despite the cynicism we have to encounter on a nearly daily basis about our future, still throw our beings passionately into projects we care about. Yes, care about. Regardless of what some adults would like to believe, not every 20-something year old is apathetic and self-serving. Most of them just want what every generation before them wanted- the opportunity to freely construct a life of meaning, without having that meaning predetermined for, or forced upon them.
I know a number of people who have worked in Africa, Asia and Europe volunteering for various NGOs and youth programs. These people don’t do these things to receive virtual pats on the back” via Facebook; they do them because they seek to become more educated about the issues and fields they aspire to work in. They do it because they believe that helping others requires more than theoretical knowledge of their situation. Brownell cheapens travel by reducing it to an excuse to neglect one’s “problems at home” and gratify one’s own ego. What she doesn’t see (or simply refuses to acknowledge, given the overwhelming empirical evidence) is that travel opens up an educational space within which one is able to directly engage with, and relate to, others. This is what all of education and all of life is truly about, and if young people actively seek to exploit it then I will be the first to encourage them.
I also want to argue directly against the neo-liberal notion of cashing cheques in order to fulfill one’s support for a cause. This is the alternative Brownell proposes, and one that I think is more genuinely reflective of white solipsism than interns traveling to Cambodia to help orphans. This is because it is a solution predicated upon the belief that the deeply structural oppressions experienced by those in Africa and all over the world can be remedied solely with money. Even though it is a reality that South African women are more likely to be raped than to learn how to read, we are still implicitly and ideologically conditioned to believe that economics is the answer as opposed to education. In cashing a cheque, one never has to confront the faces of rape victims or orphans; one need not make any further effort to understand the history and socio-economic realities of the people they are sending money to. As a result, the oppressed become disembodied and the depth of their suffering is erased. They become the mythical “other” whose voices we can write off our conscious with a cheque.
At the end of her article Brownell poses a question: Is the best life the one with the most life experiences and thrills-per-minute, or is it the one where you slowly build something over a long period of time?
Personally, I don’t believe any human life is defined by merely one or the other, and I have made it my personal crusade to reject everyone else’s formula for my life. As far as I know, there is no rule stating that we can only build something long-term in one place. The journeys we take, the relationships we form, and the love we put into what we create transcends one time and place. What I love most about my generation is that we are in the process of dismantling the notion that a life is defined by one project, one clear route, or one standard resume. Travel, internships and volunteerism are not brief interludes from life, they are clear attempts to reach out towards life precisely where it is located- directly within the world.