So you’re in class. You just biked to campus from your small apartment in Isla Vista or walked from the dorms. You probably ate breakfast this morning and you most likely will eat two more meals later today. You open your laptop or pull out a notebook to take notes. Your phone sits on the corner of that tiny brown sliver of a desktop. Your professor addresses the class and announces that you will be viewing a documentary today. Mentally you prepare yourself for the emotional ride you are about to embark upon. As the lights dim, you are transported thousands of miles away into a tiny village in a foreign country. With each passing minute you are drawn into another world you cannot imagine, one where the biggest problem a person has that day is whether or not their village will be drowned in the floodwaters that a new mega-dam will bring, or whether they will be able to feed their children that day. You are suddenly aware of the jarring difference between your life and theirs.
I am constantly shocked by the never-ending procession of tales of exploitation, poverty, desperation, sickness and misery that exist all over the world. Villages are being flooded in India, mining companies are devouring land in Papua New Guinea at the expense of the indigenous, local fisherman and farmers in the Philippines are being uprooted to make room for country clubs and golf courses … and on and on and on. You go to class, watch a documentary on these miserable people and then you walk out into the sunshine and are supposed to move on with your day. How? How can you become aware of these abuses of humanity on our earth and not think twice about it? How can you go to your next class or eat a meal without simultaneously wondering what you can do? It is this feeling of guilt knowing that you are living in ease while millions are living in extreme poverty that can hang like a cloud over your head.
We, as a population at UCSB, are generally privileged, solely based off the fact that we are here attending university. Our concerns (again I am speaking generally) are with our classes, our relationships, success in the future and financial issues. We are privileged to have these concerns. We do not have to think about when we will eat our next meal or where we will live next year if the government repossesses our house. I think it is safe to assume that the majority of students do not live below the poverty line. However, while we carry on with our day-to-day lives here, 80 percent of the world is currently living in poverty.
The mind-blowing fact that I have come to realize this year is that nothing is what it seems. There are so many factors that we, as a privileged class, take for granted and turn a blind eye to. Do you ever think when you buy a shirt where it came from? Do you wonder if the conditions in the factory are satisfactory and the workers receive fair wages? When you purchase food at the grocery store, do you wonder if the produce was imported, or grown locally? If the eggs were free-range? If the product has been genetically modified? When you drive your car, do you think about fossil fuels and sustainable energy?
Your answers to these questions are most likely “no.” Or if you said yes, then you probably don’t think of these things consistently. I know I don’t. There is a never-ending list of hidden issues that exist behind the pretty labels and tags. To keep these problems on your mind all the time is exhausting and almost impossible to do. It is easy to look at what you have and feel guilty and helpless to provide aid.
While talking to a friend about this sense of guilt I felt, he brought up a related story from “Lord of the Rings.” Now, seeing as I have not watched all of the movies, he had to explain it to me in simplified terms, but I will relate the gist. Basically one of the good guys obtains an orb that allows him to spy on his enemies, but after seeing the immense strength they have, he forgets about tending to his own side and goes insane.
While this is make-believe, it can be related to the sense of detachment you feel with these distant people. You feel helpless to watch their suffering. While it is likely that you will not be able to provide any immediate, direct help to all of the people you see in these films, the most important thing you can do is to be aware of what is going on in the world around you. It is so easy to get caught up in our little bubble and ignore these global issues because they seem so distant and far away. However, reading the newspaper, watching more documentaries and talking to your friends about current events provides a chance that you will eventually come across an opportunity to reach out and provide some help. Being knowledgeable about what is happening around you is so important. While you might feel like you can’t do anything but sit back and empathize, awareness changes the way you think. Once you are aware that the world is not a perfect place, you no longer take things for face value. Maybe you will begin to question foreign governments when they propose pretty plans with attractive ideas or question what goes into the making of the pair of jeans you just bought. Realizing what goes on behind the scenes is the first step in helping these voiceless people.
Back in my stuffy lecture hall, I sit and watch the tanned and lined faces of these impoverished people flash across the screen and feel a human empathy for them. Seeing their great appreciation for what little they have and how big their problems are makes me immensely grateful for what I have right now in my life, and that is a step in the right direction.