When I heard somebody on the bus the other day say: “I went to Wimbledon this year. Just to say I’ve done it, you know,” I couldn’t help but cringe a bit inside. It’s an old but sad notion that we do things not for the pleasure of doing them but to have something to brag about afterwards.
But we do that don’t we, it’s like those people we see out at parties who are posing for photos, grinning and sticking fingers up and I can literally see the thought bubble appear above their heads – “This photo will look great as my profile picture on Facebook” – Therefore the continuing pleasure of this night (which is often an even greater pleasure than the night itself) will be showing and telling people about it.
I know I’m in no position to preach – I probably do take too much relish in telling people I’ve taken part in a skydive (ooh get me). After a night out, part of my hungover hunched-over self is enjoying the drama of sordid tales of lost phones, encounters with strangers called Jethro and dancing down the streets without shoes on to the tunes of a Ukrainian-born reggae band. (I definitely haven’t had a night out like that but it sounds great doesn’t it)
What really got me thinking recently was that, however well-meaning it may be, how can we seperate the experience from the narrative? Or the real question, I suppose, how can we avoid the pitfalls in ascribing our self-worth to the tales we come up with?
This particularly came to mind when I was reading about people’s travels. More and more people are paying insane amounts of money to volunteer abroad. But the people they are helping would probably kill to have that amount of money they paid to be there helping them. I know essentially these volunteers are paying for the security net of support when they’re out there etc but the whole idea is just so flawed to me. Essentially because it makes it more like a well-meaning holiday, rather than an act of making a genuine difference.
I’m careful how I phrase this because I know lots of people who do this are very hard-working, generous volunteers who simply don’t know how else to go abroad and help people the way they want to, without paying an organisation to help them.
What happened to exchanges – let’s bring those back. Seeing as there are thousands of Africans, Indians and other nationalities who would give their right arm to come to England, and British people who have had enough of the cynicism and weather and want to make a difference abroad. It makes the most sense to me, rather than the equivalent of an entire village’s annual income being spent on one person’s trip to Rwanda to help build a mud well.
Which brings me to my main point – the reasons we want to do what we do. Do we genuinely want to help people or do we want to have another experience to add to our growing and impressive list? I watched a brilliant film called Machan last weekend about a group of Sri Lankan men so desperate to come to live in Europe that they invent a handball team, not even knowing what the word handball means. Lots of westerners dream of going to Sri Lanka, it is a land full of beauty, Sri Lankans dream of coming to Europe, it is a land full of money.
I suppose we are lucky that we are allowed the indulgence of travelling to make ourselves feel good when many people we’ll meet in those countries want to travel to lead a solid life – the lives that we are leading here already and probably taking for granted.
This whole idea is probably not far away from the ‘Is there a selfless good deed?’ question. There is no easy answer and there is probably no shame in admitting that both factors – helping people and having a great experience – play a role in volunteering abroad. I think what we can reject though is the easy compartmentalisation of ideas. I have volunteered abroad therefore I am good. You are working in England therefore you are bad. I have met children in India therefore I am a better person. It’s far too messy for that and anyone who thinks spending 10 months in Bhutan makes them a better person than their peers is a lost individual.
This has all made me rethink my plans for when I go to India (yes, after all that ranting, I am actually volunteering abroad myself). I haven’t paid anyone to do this and am not even sure what I’m doing yet. But whatever it is, I will not be fitting it into any agenda of mine and I think the further removed it is, the more distanced I am from my own smug self and it’s ideas of what I want, the more I will actually be able to learn and find out more – which I will not be then posting on Facebook as a status update.