Monday, March 26, 2012

We got a good thing going, or do we?

The buzzword 'Kony' provokes any number of impassioned replies, apathetic shrugs and mentions of the IC's co-founder Jason Russell's unfortunate PR nightmare. Badvocacy, awareness, over-simplification of complex world issues, the White-Man-Saves-the-Day narrative. It's hard enough trying to wrap my head around the little soap operas, telenovelas and daytime dramas of everyday 20-something life without delving into issues on development, aid, US foreign policy, colonialism/post-colonialism/neo-colonialism etc. Can't I just have my coffee and enjoy my little bubble in peace?

Whoever thought 'doing good' would be so hard? In light of all things Kony has brought to the fore, the issue of 'doing good' is at the forefront. It's difficult because at first glance it seems like a no brainer. You feel bad, so you want to do good, so you do good. Right? I thought for most of my life up until fairly recently that this was the natural formation of things. I watched a documentary about the famine in Africa in the late '90s (think Live Aid, Bono & Bob Gedolf singing for money and getting lots of it) and declared I would do something to help me sleep at night.

It did actually take me by surprise the idea that good intentions are not enough, that passion only gets you so far. Can't I just go to Africa and help? (scary, because that was my thought process as a teenager upon my imagined future as a free wheeling hippy/aid worker). A blogger and human rights lawyer who I've followed and admired for many years wrote about this paradigm of 'passion' outcompeting the value of skills and guided, informed, specific action. Then I got searching, I found out many reasons why Good Intentions are Not Enough. Good reasons why our modes of thinking about helping need to be, like everything, seriously considered with due diligence. This Doing Good is a Serious Business!

I am offering no solutions here, only talking aloud through the problems I have come across. I was and am still largely ignorant of the ways in which my privilege, status, education etc. relate to and often come at the expense of those whose names I do not know and whose faces I shall not meet. Those I have the lofty notion of helping are those who have voices of their own, struggles that are intertwined with my successes more than I know.

To know about the Global Food Crisis, poverty, the devastating effects of climate change, dictatorial or authoritarian regimes, human rights abuses  etc. is to know also about the ways in which these came about. We need to know, in short, the role our democratic capitalist nations and the like have played a part in facilitating or fostering this. We are not blameless, there is no innocent, unattached, uninvolved saviour to the world's problems.

Growing up I thought poverty was an isolated issue far away from my second story home in the suburbs of Sydney. It didn't have anything to do with me except to offer me a part in feeling good about ending it. The thing is, I'm only starting to understand how interrelated our stories are. Those who I hear about on the news and those who appear on our 'World News' covers.

Our emotions, our indignation, our empathy, our motives are all incredibly powerful - they are only effective when coupled with the less glamorous notion of critical thinking, education, skills and informed decision making. Hope makes all things glow, makes all things possible but we need to be able to see the grey areas where our governments and even ourselves have played a part in constructing or at least allowing these many inequalities, everyday poverties and black holes for our good intentions.

"His good heart does not always allow him to think constellationally. He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated 'disasters.' All he sees are hungry mouths, and he, in his own advocacy-by-journalism way, is putting food in those mouths as fast as he can. All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need."

Sunday, March 18, 2012

"I hope you make mistakes," he said.

It was 10:30am on a Saturday morning and I was at university. There is something inherently wrong with that statement. It was raining, it was cold and I didn't even have any tutorials or exams on. What the hell was I doing? If there was something wrong with my first statement, what this guy said followed on from the theme of strangeness.
'I hope you make mistakes. Don't make the same ones over and over again, make different ones. I want you to have a portfolio of mistakes.'
A CEO from a large accounting firm giving us the first talk of the day he assured us of the value of failure, of risk - its huge Return On Investment. From a business point of view he assessed our assets which were, in no specific order, that we were Young, Beautiful and Anonymous. Really? It's something I've been thinking about a lot lately (no, not being 'young, beautiful, anonymous' but getting it wrong..and eventually, getting it right).

It was a cliche on a day full of cliches, like J. K Rowling's quote 'If you don't try, you fail by default'. It applies to everything. We are human and fallible, and once we accept it, it no longer becomes a weapon but a shield. Failing in relationships, in jobs, in interviews, in money, in life. It's going to happen sometime, somewhere (if it hasn't already). So why not go all out, fail spectacularly.

We have so many unknowns, so many question marks in our lives. The unwritten future is what makes it more exciting, more risky, more interesting. People ask me what I'm doing next year and I reply that I might go to South America, do a few internships, live over there and travel a bit. When? For how long? Really? The real truth is I don't know. I'm playing it by ear because I'm lucky enough that I can. I'm lucky enough that failure - on an epic scale even - is an option for me, for most of us.

My whole life has been incredibly privileged. I'm allowed to make mistakes, I have such a huge margin of error. Nobody is counting on me, I have no mouths to feed, I am nobody's bread winner. I am (for this last year at least) a student entitled to 50% off public transport and an array of other goodies. My university puts on workshops for us, gives us $3000 grants to volunteer in programs in India, conferences overseas, gets CEOs and non-for-profits to come to talk to us and perhaps best yet - free breakfasts on wednesdays!!!

And I can throw it all away and go and live as a goat-herder in Nepal if I want to (I don't know how long I'd last but I'm sure I could give it a go). I can fail, I can afford to. I have a disposable income and a group of people in my life who have already accepted the fact I am a bit of an odd ball. The allowance to try things, to make mistakes and to fail is a luxury that not many people have. I intend to use it to the best of my ability. I will do everything in my power to get to where I want to be, erring as many times as need be in the process.
'Why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me... I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive.. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default.'

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Homeward Bound

Turns out, hobo, the one thing I've been calling myself my one year away from home actually means homeward bound. So while I was wearing low-crotched flower-printed hippy pants, letting my hair go to dred locks, sleeping in cars and constantly looking out for cheap-deals to get me to the next town thousands of kilometres and oceans away - well all of that means I was on my way home. To here, where I've been for almost 2 months already.

Back to university and work, Sydney traffic, 45 minute train rides into the city and $85 tanks of petrol. But home has its good bits too. There's something comforting about routine, the constancy of a schedule that includes dates with friends to go on food safaris wedged between work that isn't so bad and classes you actually like. While last year was undoubtedly the most adventurous, selfish and exciting year of my life, I was often idle, directionless and sometimes a bit restless (First World Problems, I know!). How can you be restless when your life consists of planning road trips to Portugal and ferries to Morocco or post-uni trips to Malta? Easily. You take things for granted because life is a constant high, it’s so high it’s unsustainable and the lulls inbetween are longer and slower and drag out more each time.

So, upon my return to my life After Spain I was adamant I was going to be productive, I was going to learn, I was going to knuckle down. And I have. I’ve swapped reading Murakami books in Spanish for
readings on Neo-liberalism, swapped barely attended Painting and Drawing classes for Genocide Studies I and Global Politics from Above and Below. I’ve given up lethargic naps and tapas-crawls for office-work and uni workshops. 

And I’ve been talking incessantly about Everything. About recurrent relationship problems in ‘Our Generation’, about corporate life and the underlying solipsism, of working overseas, vocations and post-grad work, internships with NGOs, 5-year-plans, mortgages and marriages, cross-continental dating and post-travel/overseas-depression. It’s been an eternal catch-up with people over pad thais, chai-lattes and vegan Vietnamese food in Cabramatta – all of which you could not get in Spain.

Things are different, now. I want different things and I see them clearer. I know what I don’t want anymore, which includes a lot of what I used to want (re: 10 pairs of heels, drunken amnesia, that really cute guy who's really an asshole not for me). I know who my friends are (amazing, independent, hilarious and so damn smart) and who my friends are not. I know more personally my many and varied faults (see: bratty, judgmental etc.), yet thanks to my ever generous friends and family (and the myerr-briggs personality test) a bit of my strengths too. This insistent clarity I owe to Spain in all its glorious adventures, close-calls, epic mess ups and to its unpredictability as much as to its constant sunshine and perfectly foamed coffees.

And while I feel 60% less attractive here in Australia than I ever did in Spain, I have the confidence that comes from having your worst fears realised and your biggest dream come true. Worst fears being alone, homeless, moneyless, passportless in a country Lonely Planet doesn't cover well (also being almost mugged on my 21st birthday, missing multiple international flights etc.) and biggest dreams well - that one is self-explanatory (see: LIVING IN SPAIN). After that, the rest is cake – right?

From a good place to be, Malaga, Spain.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

nothing heavy

Hands up if you need a break from the heavy?

ah, feelin' better already.