In all forms of service alike, I feel we are constantly standing on the blurred line in between doing it for them and doing it for ourselves. While I prefer to think our rational minds lean toward ‘doing it for them’, focusing on making the lives of the beneficiaries better in whatever little way we can, I can’t say that subconsciously we are free from the familiar drop of selfishness. So this piece, the second in its series is one about my take on overseas service learning while amplifying the little voices in my head fighting over whether ‘service learning’ is more selfish than selfless, or otherwise.
‘Learning is selfish, this is not about you’
The most common argument for ‘overseas service learning is selfish’, is the idea that having the intention of learning from your service is comparable to reaping benefits for yourself at the expense of the beneficiaries you claim to help—so you spend money on plane tickets, on arguably useless materials, to hop on to another country that ‘needs help’ only to witness for yourself how much help they need, be appalled, experience profound sadness, then hop back on the plane for a return trip home. Ultimately, at least you get to say “Wow, I’ve learned a lot”.
When I put it like that, you can sense the selfishness lurking amidst the ‘service’, as if a personal agenda had been advanced through the supposed act of serving others.
At the International Understanding trip, I had the firsthand experience of ‘learning a lot from the natives’—most memorably, our visit to the slums: the houses built amongst trash, with trash and filled with trash. The pungent smell that made it hard to breathe, and litter that made up the ground on which we walked were stark images that to today, I remember vividly. The feelings of injustice accompanied with anger and sadness are renewed whenever I recount this visit to my friends. I had learned a lot. We were told to keep these strong emotions that translated into tears of agony in the night we did reflections as a team in mind, as they were the driving force for change in the future. And herein lies the assumption that the learning from service trips would later translate into action—donations, advocacy, and more volunteerism.
The fact is that people listen more intently when these accounts are told firsthand. As eye witnesses with stories and literacy, we can potentially translate our memories into fables that could inspire action and encourage empathy amongst those around us. We potentially become the communicating link that remind the privileged of problems that are otherwise ‘out of sight, out of mind’. This learning can be unselfish ultimately.