Over the last five weeks I have had the incredible experience of mentoring groups of 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 that sense of passion and purpose I had been beginning to lose through immersion into the cynicism of ‘the real world’. And it has given me hope! The students I mentored were an absolute 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 What has happened to my life that means these things no longer exist in and around me but have rather been replaced by apathy, cynicism, and despondency?
I used to be an incredibly passionate and motivated person, advocating for change in anything unjust, especially when I went to Mahindra United World College of India (MUWCI) for the last two years of secondary school, part of the United World Colleges consortium which Online UWC is part of.
Here I was surrounded by like minded, adventurous, incredible people from all over the world. I know this is a special case but MUWCI was transformational, and perhaps why I feel this change toward cynicism and apathy as strongly, and as personally, as I do. So I guess this is quite a personal post, although I’m sure it’ll resonate with many.
At MUWCI, we were immersed in a micro-society of activism, passion, and resolutions. We all wanted to change the world for the better, and worked together to try and achieve it. As a fellow student, Tyler, recently wrote on his blog about MUWCI after our reunion last year:
“We challenged each other constantly, in an inescapable cigarette smoke haze of loving but heated argument. We filled our days with self-organized community service activities and intellectually over- ambitious art pieces, orchestrated elaborate theatrical productions, and we never seemed to sleep much…”
But life after MUWCI was tough, even with the energy of an 18 year old. What we called the “MUWCI Blues” hit me hard and trying to realign my idea of the world and my place within it took a good few years. Heck, I think I’m still figuring it out. This is in no way a sign of regret for going or a negative reflection on the college itself. I’m sure it is the same for anyone who leaves school, this was just my experience. I went on to a university that steamrollered who I was and what I believed, surrounded by people I struggled to relate to. I found myself in a society that pushed me in the wrong direction, a distance down which I had unfortunately travelled before I had even realised I was there. I studied the world, as I had at MUWCI, but without my support net or my comfort blanket of 200 other students all trying to figure out the same. We were by then spread all over the world, all on our own journey’s into adulthood and ‘the real world’.
And this is where I realised the root of my issues, I think, in the self-perpetuating cycle of ‘the real world’.
I have a massive issue with the term ‘the real world’. What is the real world? Everyone’s world is different and is real. When you think about it what is really meant by ‘the real world’ is the idea that really, 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. Everyone knows what is meant by it without even thinking about it, or questioning it. And from that, people just accept it. No one then challenges the societal injustices that tend to spark the use of the term in every day life. We become apathetic because we learn to believe these hardships are all part and parcel of ‘the real world’.
For me, one of the side effects from this ‘real world’ has been the increase of cynicism alongside a simultaneous loss of passion to change things. I’d say that’s a normal and understandable correlation. As one comes to realise and appreciate the complexities and difficulties rife in the world, our ability to still be able to stay positive about making changes becomes smaller.
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 just 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 will judge me for not accepting ‘the real world’.
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, just as it didn’t ten years ago and just as it doesn’t for these incredible students.
I hope they are able to create a permanent space in which they can keep this passion and drive, and where ‘the real world’ means something else…
It takes strength to carry on in the face of these challenges and not let ‘the real world’ grind us down but I know other people who are holding on to the strands of passion left, and who are becoming cynical of the cynicism, which has given me the hope and strength to do the same. So thank you Online UWC for providing me with this opportunity to self-reflect and figure some things out!
Before anyone retorts to this and says ‘stop being so idealistic’, no. I dont think I shall! I think my problem, and the problem in general, is that idealism is drummed out of us. We’re made to think only realistically, which opens us right up to cynicism and despondency. 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 mean some changes are made because we plough on regardless of what ‘the real world’ throws at us. It means 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.
I would love it if one day ‘the real world’ means something rather different! I guess I just don’t want to end up twisted and bitter, and at the rate I’m going I will be very soon. 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…