I’ve been reflecting quite a bit recently—on the lives of the people around me, the lives of people at home, and my own puny existence in the grand scheme of things. My newfound proclivity for navel-gazing I attribute, in part, to the lack of connectivity, i.e. the loss of time-squandering privileges. On a more serious note, I do recognize that immersion in a challenging foreign environment may have something to do with it as well.
I know I am not singular in this regard. As the weeks have flown by, it has brought me great excitement to hear about the game-changing epiphanies that my fellow DukeEngagers have experienced on their personal journeys here in South Africa. Many of us will be returning to school with resolutions and aspirations different from those with which we came.
Weeks ago, we were invited to the home of Jane and Gilbert, former anti-apartheid activists. “It’s so easy to forget what life is,” Jane commented after dinner, as we were chatting in their living room.
In knowledge and success, hallmarks of elite students all over the world, there is a certain comfort. Through the fulfillment of our ambitions, we weave the narratives of destiny and exceptionalism by which we define ourselves. Among the graced—the confident, the intelligent, the exciting—we envelop ourselves in the assurance that we, too, are destined for great things. It is so easy forget what life is: rarely beautiful or glorious, often tedious and mundane.
Here in Africa, I am a small drop in a vast ocean of humdrum human lives—few lived gloriously. The work I do is a small drop in a vast ocean of decades-worth of human efforts—some successful, many not. On the ground, the work is mundane, and the work is hard. I make spreadsheets. I edit documents. I am surrounded by people work with humility and quiet courage for great causes in uninspiring office cubicles. My big ego is put to shame by their dedication.
Yesterday, I found an old document on my computer planning out the next three years at Duke. For the first time, it failed to inspire the same sense of excitement about the future. To the contrary, I found it more than a little silly – the compulsive desire to control external events, to take the privilege of playing God to my life for granted. In some parts of the world, where livelihoods hang by the thread, schedules are anomalous.
There are those who will scoff at the feeble attempts of American college students to stand in the shoes of others, to serve and to glimpse that which they can very little understand. “The Americans have come to save the children,” some will jeer. I don’t blame them, yet they are mistaken. The Americans have not come to save the children. They come to bow their heads, if only for a moment, so that they might look into the eyes of those who they’ve neglected to see, having directed their gaze toward the clouds.
Profound personal revelations and life-altering experiences – these are the stuff of civic engagement myth. Yet too often do we fail to recognize what civic engagement is: the conscious act of remembering, of not taking the path made easy by privilege of forgetting what life is.