by Ralph Lelii, English department
I have benefitted in myriad ways from my long association with George School, but perhaps as significant as any has been my ability to travel on many international service trips. I have been to Asia seven times, to India, and to Israel and the West Bank, and these trips enriched my life in ways that are significant and enduring. In my experience, the spiritual qualities of the human heart and soul are quite universal, but the material and existential conditions and possibilities afforded by different cultural and political environments vary widely. Perhaps my strongest memory will be the consequences that accrue in societies where many citizens must face a life devoid of meaningful work.
In Sigmund Freud’s famous work, Civilization and its Discontents, he claims that “Work and love are the cornerstones of our humanness” and he suggests that if one has the capacity to do both, it is indicative of psychological coherence and health. When I recall my frequent trips to Vietnam, my most striking memory is of a young man I encountered in March of 1999. Tui Nguyen was 39, and I met him at a hotel we were staying at in Hanoi prior to our departure the next day. He worked as a doorman; his job was to open the door hundreds of times a day. He had a melancholy demeanor about him and one night we talked at length. It seems that he held a Ph.D. in history from the University of Hanoi, but like many, many people in Vietnam, there was no meaningful work to be had. He begged me to help him come to the United States because his dream was to teach history. Instead, when I inquired of him last year, he was still, at the age of 53, opening the hotel door every day.
In India, in the camps in Palestine, in the villages of Vietnam I saw thousands of young men and women whose lives offered virtually no promise of meaningful work. We were overwhelmed in India by beggars, saw young men sitting in chairs for hours at a time selling trinkets, saw young women holding babies and pleading for food. Because of the economic infrastructures in which they are embedded, there is little work of any kind, and almost no work which affords a sense of meaning or engagement with the world. It is genuinely heartbreaking to imagine one of my students, or a family member, facing fifty years of life without work, without any authentic way to engage that deeply ingrained human need for meaning.
In my Theory of Knowledge class last week, several students were speaking of the many demands on them of the coming day. They are prefects, team captains and participants, club leaders, ambassadors, and nascent scholars. Their days are filled to the brim with meaningful engagement. Their opinions are asked and considered; they have multiple options for university study; they matter to their community and are engaged in work which gives them meaning.
Sometimes the word “privileged’ can be uttered as a pejorative, but this is for me the essence of privilege: to be able to work meaningfully, to know that one’s efforts are beneficial to the larger community, to feel that one’s talents are offered for the common good, to be useful. When we are immersed in the toil of our daily lives, it can seem difficult to think of it that way, but my trips around the world have driven that perspective home to me again and again. It is a privilege to feel that one matters, that our ideas sometimes count, that we can put our particular shoulders to the wheel of our culture and have them engaged. It counts a great deal I believe.
When we talked about this in class, I was moved by Dena Kleemeier’s response. She has lived in Saudi Arabia, travelled widely, and is fluent in Arabic, and on that day she spoke to this question with eloquence and wisdom, I think:
I have always had trouble appreciating how much I have to do. When I am so busy, it is very easy for me to view it as a very negative thing. When I have visited other countries with extreme poverty such as Nepal or Sri Lanka, I have seen people who obviously have no future. They try to live their lives day by day, but they are not receiving an education and they do not have jobs. It is always heartbreaking for me to see this because I feel as though I cannot help them all. In my life, I go to a boarding school that will have cost a significant amount of money by the time I graduate. More money than many people will see in a lifetime. At school I am bombarded with 100 different things to do: prefecting, overloading classes, IB Diploma, varsity soccer captain, applying to college. I need to realize how fortunate I am to have these opportunities. The reason that I have these opportunities is because my parents believe that I am worth investing in and believe in me…In all of my successes, my parents are there for me congratulating me and being happy for me. I am so fortunate for that alone. In so many parts of the world, I know people that do not share this truth. They have few to no opportunities…for these reasons I am grateful.
Voltaire wrote that in terms of the cosmos, what we do matters very little, but in the realm of the individual human soul, it all matters terribly much. I love this work that I do, and I never compare myself to anyone else. I have been blessed with the opportunity to be engaged, to work at something that I believe genuinely matters, to feel at day’s end that I gave a darn and contributed to the common good. Freud said that this, along with the capacity to love, are the cornerstones of being human. In my experience, he got it right.