Today’s post is about the difference between privilege, random good luck, and hard work when it comes to defining our ‘achievements’. It’s a bit of a long one so hang on tight, I’m going to start with a bit of a story…
My story begins in 2012 while on holiday in South East Asia where I remember specific instances, and more importantly, an unexplained sense of restlessness that haunted me throughout my trip.
The first memory that sticks out is that of visiting the Cu Chi tunnels in an area where soldiers on both sides of the Vietnamese civil war lost their lives. As I write this article, I’m in a public library doing my best not to tear up remembering the photographs of terrified faces and the remains of jungle traps scattered throughout the area I visited. I dare not tell you about the images I saw later that day at the war museum, needless to say I didn’t sleep well that night.
The next key instance I remember happened by the pool in a secluded resort in the city of Danang. Outside, the streets were full of stallholders hustling for coveted tourist dollars; inside, along with the many other travellers, were four older Australian men (most in their 50’s and 60’s). They’d decided to use their advantage in life to buy themselves a group of much younger prostitutes to keep them company during their trip. I remember them splashing around in the pool, the men talking about their grand kids back home, and the women from time to time huddling together to talk.
My problem wasn’t the women, nor to the fact that for days I’d watched this group canoodling in front of me. What upset me was the waste of privilege these men had engaged in, and in a way that only seemed to make a bad situation worse. I couldn’t take it anymore, one day I just got up and left the pool.
But the experience that really twisted the knife, was a relatively innocuous question from a porter at the hotel I was staying at in Luang Prabang in Laos. It came as my travel partner and I were checking out. We had only a little bit of local currency left, and knew we couldn’t use it in any other country. So we asked the porter if he’d give the change to the cleaning lady or something, as a tip. And I still remember his reply, “do you mind if I use it to by myself a coke?”
It sounds dumb, right? But those words, the gentle way he said it, it hit me the most. Because even as a relatively ‘poor’ artist in the west, I take for granted how easy it is for me to pull out a couple of dollars and buy myself a fizzy drink (ok, to be honest I don’t drink fizzy drinks, but you get my point…). Hell, in the west we buy the stuff by the gallon and think nothing of it.
I remember the next night sitting in the business lounge of my five star hotel back in Hoi An, Vietnam. I was still feeling restless, but I still couldn’t pinpoint why. I was with my friend having dinner, she’d expressed an opinion I didn’t agree with, and suddenly I just lost it. One second I was angry with her, the conversation got heated, and the next I was crying. The businessmen around me seemed to wonder what was wrong; and the beautiful waiter (bless his heart), sent me sympathetic looks for the rest of the evening. It was like our disagreement had cracked the surface enough for me to finally know what my problem was.
I roughly remember my words at the time, they went something like this…
“I don’t get it, I don’t know why I’m here, and why they’re out there. We have our iPhones and iPads, these people will never be able to afford that (in Laos I’d researched the average annual income, it was less than what I make in a week.). But when I go out there every night, I see neighbors meeting in the streets and talking to each other. The children don’t have flashy toys, but they splash in the river or in the public fountains. They’re having fun, and they’re happy. I don’t get it, I don’t know who’s winning and who’s losing here.”
I could go on about how our western ideals are pieced together by clever marketing, “if you get that car, dress etc, you will be happy”, because what I saw completely contradicted this. But most of us know this, and know that if we stopped believing the lie, there would be no money for big business. And the thing is, I especially knew this, I myself grew up poor.
But inside my five star hotel (which I believed I’d worked hard to earn), it hit me that for all our ‘stuff’, much of it equates to very little in the end. From the people I met during my trip I got an almighty reminder that even the things I believed I’d earned, and believed I deserved, little had any real impact on how happy I could be.
It’s so easy to beat our chests and say, ‘I got here alone, I did it myself’. But imagine the heartbreak and gratitude that comes with realizing that what you are is just really fucking lucky. You wonder ‘why me?’, and you feel guilt for what you have. You realize how random and cruel the world can be. But you can take the lesson, and start to love the little things you have. I mean really love them.
From my experience, watching village life unfold before me, I got a better understanding of what it must have been like for my parents growing up on rations in their own post WW2 village. In countries like Australia and America, we rarely heed the fact that war has rarely touched our shores. It’s so easy to live in a bubble. We can get so busy comparing minor battle wounds, that we forget that what we have is more than most on this planet.
We achieve trivial goals and call it success, when for some just having shelter from the rain, or not being raped or beaten that day, is an achievement. Think about it, I mean, really think about it. And think about it next time you see a migrant in your own country, who doesn’t quite fit in. Because you have NO idea what their journey is.
Now I don’t say this to make anyone feel crap, or because I think we should belittle our achievements in life. I say it because I hope my words uplift you. Because I believe gratitude is a key to happiness.
So try being thankful, and more than anything, look at what small advantages you have and don’t waste them. Do it now. Look at what and who you have in your life and say, “thank god/ science I have them”. Look at what skills or privileges you have and use them. Know that there are millions of people out there who wish they had half as much as you have, and don’t waste the chance you’ve been given.
I’ll go first and tell you what I learnt from South East Asia…
From the Cu Chi tunnels, and the terrifying the images of war:
- I learned to be thankful for my warm bed, for the fact that I do not know what it is like to sleep in a muddy puddle with bullets flying over my head. I’m thankful that I do not fear that tomorrow I might be shot, or tortured.
- I learned to be thankful for my intact mind. That it hasn’t been broken by a horrific experience, like so many men of war seem to return home with.
From my pool side in Danang:
- I learned from the prostitutes that all that separated me from them was sheer dumb luck. That as bad as I thought things might have been for me, I was born to a situation in which I’d had the fortune to be raised in a first world country.
From the porter in Lao:
- I learned to be thankful for the few dollars I had in my pocket, because for some it’s a few dollars they don’t have. To be thankful for the sense of relative financial security I take for granted everyday.
All up, I am not trying to rain on anyone’s parade. I’m not saying to use your lot in life to become an overachiever simply because of all the ‘don’t haves’ out there. I’m not even saying that EVERYTHING in your life comes down to luck. And I don’t believe everyone is looking for a free ride. What I am saying, is that in a world where we are a product of environment and experiences, our lucky encounters (the school you went to, the parents and friends you have) are a privilege. Much of which you were gifted and didn’t work for.
When you get down to it, there’s no making sense of why you or I got the life that we did. I can take pride in the fact that regardless of my set backs in life (that’s a post for another day), I worked hard for my stay in those lavish hotels and other ‘achievements’ that have come my way thus far. So can you. But what I gleaned most from that life changing day in Vietnam, was a butt kicking reminder of just how ‘lucky’ I am. And that for every choice I have in life, I cannot forget that a large percentage of that choice comes down to nothing more than pure chance.
Hope you enjoyed today’s post. I love reading and responding to everyone’s comments, so feel free to leave a comment of your own.
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SIE Liang HaiMay 26, 2014 - 2:23 am ·
Many of us moving to First World countries indeed seek security in life, to live in a country where the rule of law applies, so not be exposed to the whims of those in power, in the sense of not blatantly being discriminated against, or worse getting incarcerated/raped/killed when anti-“us” riots break out. The last in SE Asia as recent as May 1998 against the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia costing >1,000 people their lives, but nothing when compared to the Indonesian killings of 1965-66 where between 500,000 to 3,000,000 people were killed out of hand in a systematic big “clean-up” operation.
So yes, I too consider myself being so fortunate not to have personally suffered from those acts of violence, and having lots of luck, and many friendly helpful people around me (and some hard work by myself too) succeeded in building up a good life after moving to Europe.
MatteoJune 21, 2014 - 11:07 am ·
The examples in your article all have something in common; they all have, or had, communistic governments of some kind. It’s easy to rise to power with the promise of hand outs. That system eventually leads the situations you’ve witnessed.
Even here in the US, all one has to do is take a ride through neighborhoods with the most handouts and perpetual unemployment, they are always the worst and most dangerous. They always will be until the pattern is broken.
When I lost my printing company job (and career) a few years ago, I learned how to fix air conditioners because I saw there was a need for it. I could have stayed and lived on unemployment. I chose not to and now I have a busy career.
When will a prominent person (or writer) have the guts to suggest breaking the pattern? Have the guts to call out “leaders” who promote social handout programs that are the origins of all 3rd world problems.
We have iphones and ipads because our forefathers didn’t allow emperors, dictators or social engineers to take care of our basic needs from cradle to grave and the forefathers of the poor people in your article did, period. Stop crying and call it out!
Katerina SimmsJune 21, 2014 - 12:03 pm ·
“Be the change you want to see in the world.” – Ghandi. If you would like something said you must be the one to say it Matteo.
I don’t agree with your points here. Much of what I saw was the fall out of war and opportunism of both east and west regimes. I say this as someone whose partner grew up in a communist country. Yes they didn’t have ipads, but if they got sick no one was told they must pay or die. We might not have dictators but we have more covert measures that are often much worse. No ideal is perfect.
“Most poor countries that received aid 20 years ago are doing better than before.” http://annualletter.gatesfoundation.org/#section=myth-one
Matteo CanolliJune 22, 2014 - 10:59 am ·
But who gives the aid? Where does aid come from? In the long term, does it treat the symptoms or the root cause? Shouldn’t people who can provide aid and innovation be emulated (instead of hated)? I know what my answers are but I’d like to hear your opinion.
You and i both love people. We just have different takes on world history i guess.
BTW, I was in a long-term relationship in the 1990s with a woman from Poland. She told me that tanks used to go down her street when she was a little girl (while my biggest concern was what brand of sneakers i had). My years with her and hearing her stories hardened my distain for communist group think and path-of-least-resistance mentalities that elect power-hungry leaders.
and ps, I found your through Quora, your article on Karma. I thought is was terrific.
Katerina SimmsJune 22, 2014 - 11:23 am ·
What do you think the root cause is? Certainly not poor people, I’d say. I don’t believe the majority of poor are inherently lazy or unwilling to work, just look at the millions who break their backs in sweat shops just for the slightest chance they can get ahead and feed themselves. Even in our society the numbers show that the majority of people on welfare don’t stay on it long term, those who do likely have complex issues, often they come from a long line of families who don’t work and that is their learned way of life.
Sure people who innovate and provide aid should be emulated, but is there room enough in the world for all of us to do so? I highly doubt it. Even Bill Gates came from a very rich family to begin with and he benefited from that – in being the right person, with the right knowledge (afforded to him by his families money), at the right time. The problem with our system is it dangles the carrot while neglecting to point out that large sections of people with money hoard it to a compulsive level. It’s great to say we should innovate and help, but many do not, or merely sprinkle breadcrumbs, which is hard to distinguish between aid or them doing it for the tax break.
I think communism and democracy have their own chains, one just hides it a little better while telling people they are free.
Thank you regarding my karma piece, I’m glad you liked it. Quora is a fantastic site.:)
Arup BhanjaJuly 17, 2015 - 5:10 pm ·
Yes agree forget iphones .. what if someone barefoot from the “3rd” world asked someone from the “1st” world “Why do you need more than 1 pair of shoes ?” – Perspectives vary from people to people depending on what they want to AVOID … people do uncomfortable things to AVOID more uncomfortable things if you see what I mean 🙂