Thursday, July 10, 2014


One of the side effects of the extremely connected world we live in today, is that with a simple mouse click we can in a split second compare our lives to those of our friends. We can control what portion of our lives we display to our internet network (although with privacy issues perhaps even this is changing). Suddenly, rather than being content with the fact that we have a job, friends, health, a roof over our heads, and food or perhaps any combination of these things, comparing lives can arouse feelings of envy and make us scrutinize our own lives and choices.

I love the fact that I can use Facebook to keep up with my lovely friends around the world. I have contemplated deleting my Facebook because of privacy concerns, how annoying it is to sometimes be bombarded with political opinions, and simply the distraction it often becomes. But ultimately, I don't have an alternative that allows me to so effortlessly get a sneak peek into the lives of people I do care about a lot. I realize that perhaps even my own posts might stir envy in some people since I have had some incredible opportunities. But one extremely disturbing trend that I have observed on facebook and the internet world in general is the abundance of fundraising efforts. I think it's great that the internet and social media allows us to raise support for causes and I spent years fundraising for various projects and trips and I understand how challenging that can be. However, some of these fundraising and kickstarter campaigns I find extremely unsettling and ultimately very angering.

At the end of the day people are free to raise money and give money where they want. I have no desire to change this freedom and I know I only have control over my own actions. Most recently, I read a post about $35,000 potato salad kickstarter (that started as $10). I sincerely hope this is fake and whoever was raising the money will use the $35,000 for something more productive than making a potato salad for the first time. However, what is incredibly shocking and to me a testament to how privileged and perhaps unknowingly selfish we have become int he west is the fact that people actually gave money to this cause!

A few months ago I had to write an PhD essay about the challenges and disadvantages I have experienced through life to allow me to reach the place I am at now. I recall sitting in front of my computer staring at the screen thinking about how I could write some BS about how hard I've worked, the challenge of being one of the few females in a male dominated environment with my engineering background, or the cultural difficulties in the many places I've lived. But this didn't ring true to me. Instead I took an alternative approach and decided to write about how privileged I've been and how this sense of privilege is what has created my deep desire to extend my privilege to others who were not afforded the same opportunities as me. This alternative essay approach did not prove to be successful in getting me accepted into the program but at least I know I was authentic.

I try not to judge individual situations (but this doesn't mean I don't find myself judging people), but there is one thing that can shift my normally sunny disposition (at least I think it's sunny) to anger. One of my "privileges" has been the many opportunities I've had to see real people living in an extremely difficult conditions with very, very few opportunities to change their situation no matter how hard they work. Yes, in the developing world many, many people work incredibly hard to simply survive but this hard work without rewards life is not just for those in the developing world. I know that in my own country there are single mothers working several jobs without health insurance and barely making ends meet. There are far too many people on the streets for reasons that I am convinced are not just because they were "lazy". I can write an essay about how hard I've worked to reach the state I'm in now, and it wouldn't be a lie. I do work hard. But my hard work alone did not bring me to this place. Through no choice of my own I had a very big leg up right at birth.

I was born in a country that although has a lot of seemingly unsolvable problems, gives me free access to travel in most countries in the world. Free access to primary and secondary education even if the quality of that education is variable. Electricity, clean drinking water, good healthcare. Besides the inherent opportunities I had just through my citizenship, I was also fortunate to be born into a family with two well educated parents who deeply cared about the educational and emotional development of their children. I also was fortunate to live in cities with a highly educated population meaning that the schools I attended and the people I was surrounded by also shaped my intellectual curiosity and development. I was fortunate to have a father who worked in academia so that I could go to a high quality private university for almost free where I was given international experiences, taught to ask questions, and given problem solving skills. I was also fortunate to be born a native English speaker (although sometimes I think this is a disadvantage when it comes to language learning). By default I had the opportunity to teach English, attend university in the Netherlands without any expensive and difficult language tests. Perhaps through the accumulation of these opportunities I was granted a scholarship that has allowed me to study for free and live comfortably in the Netherlands.

Now sure, I can approach my life from a different angle and think about the fact that I worked during my education so that I had to take very few loans. Or the hundreds upon hundreds of applications I filled out often to be disappointed by rejections when some of my counterparts seemed to be just handed opportunities. Or the fact that I have self funded most of my travel opportunities when some people can go on all inclusive holidays with their families (not that I want to take all inclusive trips anyway). I could compare myself to many people and easily wallow in self pity. By material standards, there are many people more well off than me. But the reality is that I make up a very small percentage of the world's population and most of the world will ever have the same opportunities I've been granted. Often I feel guilty about this fact. What did I do to deserve this privilege? Nothing really.

But rather than feeling guilty about privilege I was granted by birth, I feel angry, angry that people are giving money to potato salads (among other things) when $5 could provide health insurance for a year to a Rwandese. Giving money is difficult and we want to know where our money is going but what if instead of throwing our money around to things that make no difference in the world, we thoughtfully considered how we can share the privileges we've been granted and perhaps alter the life path of just one individual.

Disclaimer: I do not want people to feel guilty by reading this post. I trust that most people are thoughtfully considering how to spend their money. But I would like those of us in the west to at least recognize our very privileged state and reconsider how we view our lives, "problems", and how we spend our money. This is a good reminder for me too, since I will stress out about where I WANT to live and WANT to do and not recognize the fact that actually being able to choose my job or place of residence is a huge privilege. While the American in me supports people trying to pursue their goals and dreams and not accepting things the way they are, I also believe that we can choose to be happy and content in whatever job or place we are in.