I returned, a few weeks ago, from an inspiring UWCSEA family service trip with primary, middle and high school students, teachers and parents to Chumkriel Language School and Epic Arts, two of our long-standing NGO service partners in Cambodia. Supporting those who cannot afford schooling and people with disabilities through Dance and Education respectively, they ran some workshops for us; we ran some workshops for them; we learnt together and danced, played football and ate together too. In getting to know them as individuals we came to understand them and their work a little bit. What they do – as abled and disabled people working together – to support and promote opportunities for the marginalised Cambodia is humbling. We all took away so much to reflect on over time. There are, however, two things that struck me immediately.
Firstly, they reminded me of the profound possibilities for meaningful work and joy even in the most difficult circumstances. It’s hard to imagine a more challenging circumstance than to be born disabled and very poor in a poor country where discrimination is still common. To live and work with the zest and happiness that they do is quite remarkable – please do spend 4 minutes watching this terrific Shake it Off viral cover as it captures something of the passion and spirit that can be hard won from adversity; I will do my best to remember it next time I am feeling frustrated.
Secondly, and more importantly, for our students and my own children, I have been forced to reflect on the notion of privilege. The disparities of wealth and opportunity between ‘us and them’ are huge; and we know that a great deal of this is simply due to the good or bad luck. Being born a disabled Cambodian in a small town is a very different start to how I imagine many of us began our lives. So how should we feel about being so lucky?
The great American writer E. B. White said that luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men and it’s probably true that most of the time we tend to ascribe our successes to our own hard work and talent; but this is not always the case. Billionaire Warren Buffet is clear about his own luck over his lifetime, saying my luck was accentuated by my living in a market system that sometimes produces distorted results, though overall it serves our country well…. In short, fate’s distribution… is wildly capricious…My being male and white also removed huge obstacles that a majority of Americans then faced (1).
So for any of us, self-awareness is possible; furthermore, it should pervade our sense of identify and privilege. A colleague sent me this rather compelling cartoon, and the message has to be that we do not need to look to other countries to find massive divergence of opportunities. It’s likely that if we look back, honestly, we can see good fortune acting across our lifetimes (2).
What’s the upshot of all this? Well, to start with, we can avoid a common misplaced emotion – guilt. To be clear – there’s nothing wrong with being privileged! Obviously, we’d like good fortune for everyone, and that has to include ourselves. So we can enjoy our good luck; and we should be like Buffet who says that the right reaction to extraordinary good fortune is not guilt, but rather gratitude. There are so many positive things associated with gratitude (3), and it seems to me that we can let it inform firstly how we respond to others who are less fortunate and secondly how we respond to our own difficulties. What’s more, these two things can come together – on this trip to Cambodia, one of the many, many heartening things I heard was one of our students saying that what she had experienced in terms of human contact allowed her to put her own problems into some perspective – and that now she knew what these partners needed, from her own experience and conversations, she would be back to do more work in later trips, and sustain the contact. When we talk about profound learning about difference, this is as good as it gets. The human contact, in real situations, wipes away the privilege and creates space for a genuine encounter that benefits everyone massively.
It’s trips like these that sustain me, when the current world news is often grim reading, and remind me to remain grateful for the many great things that are still happening (all around the world even if not reported) and optimistic for the future.