I listen to podcasts on my daily commutes and today’s episode broke my heart. It was about a brilliant boy from a bad neighborhood who clearly had the potential for greatness but also faced incredible odds because of the world he was born into. Malcom Gladwell said the story was “not inspirational, it [was] depressing”. I partially agree and partially disagree. I agree that it was depressing — I had a noticeable lump in my throat towards the end (I had laughed out loud on a few occasions while listening to podcasts, but I have not cried, yet). It was also inspiring, because it inspired me to think more about my own privilege and what I can do to help the many people out there who deserve and need our help. The people who are not given the many chances and opportunities that come with privilege; the people, like the boy featured in this story, who could go so far if the rest of us cared more.
Growing up I did not consider myself privileged. In fact, I felt quite the opposite. For most of my life I was more aware of things I didn’t have and places I couldn’t go. This made me always crave for more: more money, more things, more success. Nothing ever seemed like enough, because someone out there always did more, had more, or was more. The problem was not just that I obsessively compared myself with other people, it was also I made these comparisons in an egotistic way that was fueled by insecurities and greed, and then sugar coated it all by calling it “ambition”.
I didn’t appreciate how much privilege I had because I have been surrounded by people who are equally privileged, if not even more so. On the surface it might seem like I was under-privileged compared to some of my peers, but privilege is far more than just the household income. Privilege is having parents who prioritize my education. Even though I was disappointed that we couldn’t afford private school or expensive summer programs, I at least had parents who scouted out the best public schools in the area and moved to the neighborhood so that I could get the best free education. I was also privileged enough to have resources that allowed me to find out about financial aid and parents who told me to apply to any college I wanted to without worrying about how to pay for it. When I compared myself to the wealthy classmates at Duke, I felt like the poor immigrant who couldn’t afford the designer bags or spring breaks in Barbados. But in reality, I was already much more privileged than the millions of children in this country who deserve to go to a school like Duke just as much as I did, but who had a million more obstacles standing in their way.
Many people might feel conflicted when they hear about these social issues, and I used to be one of them, too. The problems are so large and complicated, and it can feel like nothing I do could even make a dent. On top of that, I was usually too busy with my own life. But at some point, I realized these are just excuses. No matter how large and complicated the issues are, not doing anything is never the right thing to do. Tangible differences might take the efforts of countless people and decades to achieve, but it starts with individuals caring, and doing something about it. We all have problems of our own, but we also all have the capacity to care about other people and lend a helping hand. The difference each one of us can make might be invisible, but it’s there and it’s better than nothing. Caring and helping can take many forms. If donations and volunteering are your preferred way of helping, that’s really great, but those are not the only ways. Just thinking about these social issues, and talking about them to raise awareness, is also a great way to start caring and helping. I think many of us do care when prompted, and we can all do something about it. It doesn’t matter what you do, just do something.