The Realization of How

Two years ago, when I was eighteen, after being moved to tears by the heart-wrenching but inspirational stories reported in Half The Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, I decided that I would do something to change the world. I was passionate and filled with confidence that I could, as long as I kept being persistent and genuine.

Today, I remain committed to my initial goal but less confident. After all, I don’t have a magic wand to turn the world into a better place for human beings. I have other priorities such as my studies and family responsibilities. I am torn. Torn between the essential value of being a caring individual and my tendency to recoil into a safe shell when realizing my helplessness.

Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/76807015@N03/15109381300

There is the excess of news on multiple social media platforms, which often leaves one feeling overwhelmed and numb. There are the facts learned from charity works that contributes to our individual and collective guilt: $1.75 for a pound of coffee could provide 70 days of clean water for a child in need… A five-minute shower consumes enough water to fill 9 water buckets…

Do I buy a cup of coffee on my way to school? Do I even have a right to take a shower? While I was privileged enough to feel “annoyed” with homework, or “frustrated” by the weak WIFI signal, I was keenly aware that I wasn’t one of those millions of people facing poverty, abuse, lack of education and so on. I had so many more opportunities, I reminded myself everyday. Humility and embarrassment engulfed me whenever I was reminded of this truth. It almost felt wrong to be happy.

Soon, it became easier to detach than to deal with the questions that knowledge demands. Ignorance is bliss, and desensitization is a natural coping mechanism.

However, along the way, I had an epiphany. Struggling and caring may be the signs of humanity, but at some point, when I really want to help, those feelings are not enough. They should either be toned down to prevent desensitization, or used as the ferocious fuel to create positive concrete changes. My thought was further confirmed and expanded when reading these revealing lines from A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunities by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn.

“Talking about helping others can easily sink into soggy sentimentality, even sanctimony. But the most important counterpoint is that reaching out to try to help, especially when we do it as a social activity, isn’t a Gandhi-style sacrifice. It is a source of fulfillment, even joy.”

There it was. We are all humans in need. Even though our needs may vary, we are all in search of something, some meaning necessary to our humanity. Therefore, the relationship that we have with others is a form of codependency. In giving, the truth is that we receive a great deal. We need to participate in acts of “charity” just as much for ourselves, individually, as for the “other”, the downtrodden. This realization allows us to look at charity under a new perspective, preventing us from “pitying” or maybe “looking down” on others.

The harsh realities of the world can always leave us more depressed than hopeful. But what we need is hope, a powerful vehicle to inspire us to engage. The education of “awareness” is not enough; it is often little more than a catalyst for disengagement, in response to our despair brought about by the bombardment of negativity.

The World Youth Alliance internship program is special in the way that it understands this fact. The application, which meticulously asked for my hobbies, styles of working and areas of interest, made me feel comfortable and excited to apply for it. And as I have been here for a month, it is truly an internship that I appreciate, because I get to improve on what I like to do, such as writing and creating, while being a part of a collective effort that promotes human dignity.

Helping people is important, but how we help is also important, because to do this kind of work, it is crucial that we learn how to help ourselves first. Hurt people hurt people. Only when we receive a sense of happiness from our work, will we be able to share our happiness with others.

Written by Nhi Tong, a current WYA Intern in New York City from St. John’s University.