Over five weeks this autumn I had the honour of mentoring teenagers taking part in a new online sustainability course organised by Online UWC.
Beyond what I hope for them has been a great learning experience, it has reignited in me a sense of passion and purpose I had almost lost. The students I mentored were an inspiration – their clarity of thought, their enthusiasm and way of seeing things, their confidence in admitting what is wrong in the world, in their suggestions for solving them, and their ability to share knowledge, experiences, and desires to make a difference with no qualms or apologies.
I used to be like that! What has happened to my life that means these things no longer exist in and around me but have rather been replaced by apathy, cynicism, and despondency?
Through a lot of soul searching and through learning from these students, I’ve realised the root of my issues lie in my inability to accept ‘the real world’. After spending almost a decade after secondary school trying to conform into this ‘real world’, yet constantly struggling, I can see now why the activist in me was cowering in a corner and the cynic has taken over.
When you think about it, what is really meant by ‘the real world’ is the idea that ultimately, life is hard, unfair, and there are problems that cannot be solved. The term is usually used in an understanding but unsympathetic way when someone is struggling with something – “Welcome to the real world”. It’s become a normative phrase. We become apathetic because we learn to believe these hardships are all part and parcel of ‘the real world’.
But what if we didn’t just accept the idea of ‘the real world’ and consciously tried to never lose that drive to question and change? That’s the only difference between me now and me ten years ago. I don’t necessarily know more now but I definitely have less confidence in my ability to do anything about it. I’ve come to feel silly at wanting to do something to change the world, naive for thinking that maybe I can, and clueless about why. I feel that others judge me for not accepting this ‘real world’ and seeing the possibility of something else.
But mentoring these students has kind of shown me why. I think I’ve started to come full circle. I am reigniting that sense of purpose and passion. I don’t want this norm of accepting ‘the real world’ to drag me further down. I don’t want to feel, as my colleague aptly described yesterday, jaded. I know life is tough, I know problems are complicated and complex and rife with seemingly insurmountable challenges, but I don’t see why that should stop me from trying to make a difference in the world, just as it didn’t ten years ago and just as it doesn’t for these students.
And before anyone retorts to this and says ‘stop being so idealistic’, no. I don’t think I shall! A healthy grasp of reality is necessary, of course, but losing all idealism is problematic. In my view, idealism is the only thing that will actually prevent us from being dragged down by ‘the real world’ in a way that may actually changes are made. It may mean we don’t just accept what has become the norm but challenge it and continually strive for better. Rather than just sighing and saying “oh well, that’s the real world”, we ask why it has to be this way. For me, this means being able to say I tried and followed my dreams. For what are dreams if not something to aspire to?
Reach for the moon and fall amongst the stars, and all that…
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