The Guilt of Privilege

The student’s caring bespectacled eyes beckoned me, “Teacher! Come and have some of my lunch. Please!” Dishes of vegetable, chicken and rice were quickly exhibited. “Oh thanks! But, I already have my lunch,” I replied. Some two hours later, having changed out of my teacher’s uniform, I was wandering through school carrying a small backpack. “Teacher! Where are you going?” Several of the students enquired. “To Koh Phayam,” I responded. My mother was visiting and we had decided to spend the weekend on one of the nearby islands, a short 30-minute boat ride away. The students seemed excited for me, but said they had never been. Knowing what their likely answer would be, I asked the same student who had offered me lunch, why not. “No money,” they answered. Upon hearing those words, a few strings tugged at my heart. And a dose of guilt invaded me. “One day?” I suggested. “Yes, one day, maybe,” they agreed.

This one example characterises the stark contrasting opportunities that life has presented me compared to my students. A short visit to a beautiful nearby natural paradise is affordable for me, the cost of which for most of my friends and family would be considered inconsequential. Comparatively this experience is currently outwith that student’s grasp, yet they were willing to share what they had with me.

A perfect weekend away in nearby Koh Phayam, but one which is unaffordable to many I work with

I sometimes feel guilty working with Burmese migrants here in Thailand. For the material possessions I have, the freedom I’ve had to travel and live in other countries, to become educated, to be able to express my thoughts and ideas, to compete in sports and go on adventures. It’s a kind of guilt of privilege. Guilt has also permeated other parts of my life. Often it’s around doing something which I’m aware might not be the most sustainable or ethical option, (like flying even though I know it’s carbon footprint). Or living a relatively affluent lifestyle with a higher ecological footprint than others around the world. Or for choosing to travel and live overseas, which means that I’m often away from family and friends whom I love. What are some of the things you feel guilty about?

Guilt is usually viewed negatively. Unless it can somehow be transformed into something positive, like acceptance. Realising that even if we’d like to, we can’t personally change many things in this world. I can’t change the reality and restrictions of migrant life here, or the breadth of opportunity I’ve been given compared to others. Accepting this, allows me to focus on what I can do. I can inspire and support students to be the best they can be, to wisely use their unique talents and embrace opportunity. Living elsewhere, instead of feeling consistently guilty about my lifestyle, I can acknowledge social and economic inequalities which have resulted from the complex interactions of political, environmental and economic conditions throughout the world. Utilising this knowledge, I can try to make decisions which avoid or reduce adverse social and environmental impacts.

A society riddled with guilt cannot be proactive. But a society capable of transforming guilt into something positive, will continually evolve, hopefully towards a more sustainable, equal and just world. Reinhold Niebuhr words are fitting here:

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s