By: Joy Liu
It’s something we don’t talk about much as Duke students. When we do, it often touches upon the currents of inadequacy that run deep in our culture, simmering just beneath a seemingly calm surface. Normally, I don’t think about it much either. However, over the past week, I’ve had to ask myself the question, “What would make my time here worth it?” My mind draws a complete blank, and the only way I’ve been able to get around this wall is to ask the inverse, “What would make my time here not worth it?” What is it that I fear?
Last summer, I decided that my answer was complacency. I didn’t want to get caught in a daily routine, career track, or lifestyle that would strip me of my ability to work for the values I believed in. An expression of this sentiment that left the deepest impressions on me occurred in Rwanda, where a young doctor told me almost abashedly, his gaze fixed downward, that he left his post with the Ministry of Health. Then, eyes cleared and directed straight at mine, he justified, “Routine kills ambition. We’re young. We need the chance to pursue our dreams—the simple ones like providing for my family as well as the grand ones like global health equity.” His words echoed with me, partly because I could sense how trapped he was and partly because of how he identified himself. We’re young.
We’re young. That sentence is used to justify so many things, from wrongdoing to ignorance. But the way he said it conjured all the characteristics of hope and boldness (often bordering on recklessness) that comes with youth. It’s as if he said, “We’re young. We know that the sky’s the limit. Give us the chance to act. We are doers.” Doers, but sometimes not thinkers. I suppose that’s what my education is for, to teach me how to think. It’s also another reason why I’m in India this summer. I need to learn information and think critically about it. This has never been my strong suit, so I may be an anomaly, but it seems like the more I think about it, the more questions I have. In a field that’s basically constituted by grey areas, I can’t quite figure out what’s right or wrong anymore. I don’t know what my role should be. Is it right for me to divert the organization’s staff and resources for a project that I perceive they feel obligated to do because we paid them to? Should I be present at interviews if I can’t speak the language, am not allowed to ask questions, and have no in-depth understanding of the community? Does it matter that I’m here if I am as interchangeable as the next student who comes? These questions scare me. I’m afraid of thinking about them anymore because I don’t know what the answers will be. I’m afraid that I’ll emerge more confused and doubtful than before. Then where would I be? If that’s what I take away, would it make my time here worth it or not worth it?
There’s a huge part of me that wants to throw up my hands in exasperation and say, I’m twenty. I’m too young to be doubtful or skeptical. I’m too young to feel overwhelmed by all these complexities. I’m too young for knowledge and thinking to paralyze me into inaction. I’m too young to see and internalize this much suffering in such a short amount of time. On my worst days, I can fully admit that I’m afraid of seeing more. I’m too young, I tell myself. But whenever I use those two words, I think about someone else who used them in quite a different way. I remember the words of Andy Cunningham, a Duke graduate who I’ve never actually met but who I’m sure everyone in Muhuru Bay will be proud that I’m quoting. I remember his words from a particular blog post (quite a number of years ago) about the significance of a driver’s license while working in Muhuru Bay, “On that license, it tells us our age. We all know one thing: we’re old enough now. We’re old enough to start something big. We’re old enough to make an impact. And we’re old enough to say we can and mean it.”
I can either believe that I’m too young or that I’m old enough. Sometimes I wish I could choose the former, but that would be a disservice to all those who ever opened up their homes to me, spent time mentoring me, or told me that they believed in me even when I didn’t. So I choose to say that I’m just the right age. I will always the be the right age to learn, to think, to question, to doubt, to hope, to act, to fear, and to go on the roller coaster of emotions that make it all worth it in the end.