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One of the most challenging parts of my Duke Engage experience has been navigating the ethical dilemmas that are unconditionally presented when you’re in a new environment. What interactions are unknowingly exploitative? Did you think about how your words could be perceived by the people you are talking to? Are your ambitions, themselves, problematic? I’ve spent hours agonizing over actions that are now in their coffins. Thinking after the fact does little good.
Buddhist teaching describes two types of guilt: false guilt and healthy shame. In false guilt, we recognize the status of an action and immediately chastise ourselves for it. Rather than it being constructive, it destroys our self-esteem. We ask ourselves why our state of being allowed for these mistakes to happen, whether it is a fundamental flaw with our character. This guilt breaks us down with no recourse. Healthy shame is when we can recognize the problems with our actions and take meaningful, corrective action. This is the noble treasure.
Over the course of my six weeks here, I have felt the deep guilt of existence. Some structures of fate have come together to allow me the privilege to be here. And yet, I continue to make mistakes. The discomfort I felt during the first week at Alexandra, ogling at poverty for our own benefit, continues to haunt me. Am I curating every interaction just to suction out some sort of contrived meaning? Am I ruminating over my actions at all prior to executing them, or am I merely letting my momentum take me forward?
Last week, I worked myself into a rut after befriending a local coffee shop owner. His story of starting a small business was so moving to me that I wanted the whole world to also share in it. Retroactively, I felt like I had exploited the interaction for my own desire for an “authentic” encounter. Is the line between seeking and finding really that grey? Did I tokenize my seemingly genuine interaction? My guilt overtook me: how could I not consider the implications of my actions?
I’ve been working on a case regarding community activists who are trying their best to fight the demolition of their history and culture. In attending civic meetings, building a rapport with those involved, and burying my head into the words of the case, I somehow felt a part of it. I’m not from there, and I am not woven into their history. My eagerness surpassed me. I have to realize that I’m not actually a part of the community and I have no rights to speak solely on their behalf. I can share my perspectives and attempt to be an ally, but at the end of the day it’s not my platform. When standing on a soapbox of privilege, we must realize that we are really just imports. I was truly ashamed for not knowing my place.
Each grey action, each nonbinary conclusion I’m forced to come to deeply troubles me. More often than I’d like to admit, I’ve adopted false guilt about these choices. I’ve always been guided by my moral compass and often just bulldoze through my days without calculation. This is where I must change my guilt into a more productive one and learn from my mistakes. Rather than just jump with my passion eagerly through my experiences, I must think prior to my post analyses. The only way to prevent further ethical misdemeanors is to adopt healthy shame. I have done things wrong, more than twice. But to learn means to charge forward in change.