How A Trip Abroad Taught Me To Give A Damn Again

I majored in International Relations in college for one reason. I mistakenly gave a damn.

9/11 happened two days after my sixteenth birthday, right in the heart of my most impressionable years, and everything changed. Living outside of D.C., everyone knew someone who worked in the Pentagon, and half of my Catholic school was full of kids crying in the hallways, not knowing if their parents were dead or alive. I watched the Trade Towers collapsing, the Pentagon burning, and heard the children screaming, and in that moment, for perhaps the first time, I realized I knew nothing of the world.

That same year I read Mark Bowden’s book “Black Hawk Down,” an incredible narrative about U.S. and UN peacekeeping security forces in Somalia in 1992 during Operation Hope. It introduced me to famine, modern warfare, and the No Man’s Land divide between doing what seems so obviously right and adhering to the limits of international law. 

I knew then that I needed to know more. I needed to understand how and why terrorism happens, how my country, that I had always thought to be invincible, was suddenly not only vulnerable, but fallible. Two years later, when I started college, like  many others in my age group, I majored in International Relations, both for my own interests and because in a changing world where non-state actors could make nation-states bend, people with that degree would be a hot commodity.

Fairly quickly though, I realized that while I was obsessed with hegemonies, the balance of power, and laws of war, none of it quite hit at what I really wanted to understand. It wasn’t just about discovering how nation-states interrelated, or even the wars that follow a breakdown of democracy.

I needed to understand who and what we are, and why we act the way we do. So I added in Political Philosophy to get to the root cause of the principles and thought process that made our world. I threw myself into reading about how these systems of government came to be, why man accepts the yoke of authority, and the tenuous contract of power between the citizen and the state that allows them to operate in harmony.

It changed the entire way I perceive the world—how I think, how I speak, even how I process information. I saw power plays in the tiniest interactions and have zero tolerance for ridiculous party politics because of it. It made me rapidly delineate between what is meaningful and meaningless in the world. My education defined me.

And then I graduated in the summer of 2008—the very start of the recession. Jobs were nonexistent. No one cared about my useless knowledge on jus in bello/jus ad bellum (laws in/for going to war), my high grades, or that I studied abroad at a prestigious university—what mattered was that I didn’t have five years experience or a master’s degree to offset it just to get an entry-level position. The general consensus was: “Everyone has a politics degree in this town. What makes you so special?” “Try again when you’ve gotten your head out of your ass and you can stop citing useless knowledge that no one cares about.” Which I  translated to mean: “Stop being who you are.”

So I threw it away. I gave up the topics that I gave a damn about and I started grad school to give me a piece of paper to prove that I was hirable. I threw myself into studying something I couldn’t care less about, and it worked. I got a job, lost a job, got another one, and another one after that. Each one took me farther away from anything that mattered to me, from being part of any kind of relevant dialogue in the world. Every day in the office made it abundantly more clear how little value the education that meant so much to me, mattered at all.

I had a job, though—good pay, good benefits, a lot more than could be said for most of the rest of the nation. So what if I stopped actually thinking about anything other than “Can I keep my job?” or “Will this make me forget everything I hate about my life for a while?” I forgot “cogito ergo sum”—if existing meant I had to think about how much I had let job security change who I am, I’d rather not.

So I stopped caring about the world; stopped being passionate about issues that mattered, stopped getting het up over injustices and let arguments I once would’ve fought to the enth degree over just slide past me.

If there was one thing the recession and Corporate America taught me, it’s that caring is not an advantage. Caring makes everything you do because you’re “supposed to” seem trivial and pointless. North Korea might have imminent nuclear missile capability, but I have a software datasheet to write. We might have spent a decade at war in the Middle East, but I better check my work email in case someone sent something in the last 20 seconds.

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Last summer, it all changed. I was deeply unhappy at my job, working for a company of good people, but doing things I hated, and after saving my vacation time up all year, I blew it going back to a place where I had last felt the most like myself. I returned to England for the first time after a study-abroad experience that changed my life five years prior. I returned to Oxford where I had once been at my best and full to the brim of my own potential and I yearned. I stood underneath London in Churchill’s War Room, and saw an image of St. Paul’s Cathedral standing tall while London burned in the Blitz  attack on  December 30th, 1940, and I cried.

I cried for the forbearance and fortitude of a nation that refused to backdown against the evil at their doorstep. Even when it may have been easier to roll-over and appease their enemy, as many others did, Britain crippled its empire standing up for what is right. They “kept calm and carried on” while the cities burned, their people died, and they kept fighting.  And I cried because I had let an inconsequential job take away everything that I cared about, that which defined me and that I knew to be right. I stood there staring at that image and mourned the loss of the courage of my convictions.

As I walked out of the Bunkers, a copy of the print of St. Paul’s standing tall as London burned under my arm, Winston Churchill’s famous quote resonated within me:

“Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

Not caring was no longer an option.

View Comments (5)
    • Thanks so much Kariss! I’m glad someone enjoyed it. :) By the way, ask and you shall receive- now offering “Like” buttons. Great suggestion!

    • Thanks Melissa :). I didn’t quite know I felt that way until it was written, but sometimes it’s important that we look back and trace the steps that shape who we are and why we believe what we do. I know this might not resonate with a lot of people, and it’s probably rather indulgent to post, but if even a few like it, then it’s worth it.

  • “I majored in International Relations in college for one reason. I mistakenly gave a damn.”

    I could not have said it better myself. The rationales behind your life decisions sound very similar to mine. I am currently working towards a masters in international development cooperation (read: How to make poor countries rich! (reread: impossible)) after my undergrad stint in international history, and i face a constant swing from one end to the other of the caring-about-things spectrum. Unfortunately that spectrum is completely correlated to my levels of productivity.

    I have always felt that whatever I was doing had to matter in the ‘big picture’ of things, for it to be worth doing. I mean everything I do, from cleaning my room to writing a paper to picking a volunteer site. This creates a very vicious cycle of manic productivity/absolute depression where I either can’t do enough to save the world, or everything I do is pointless, and why try to save humanity when everything is going to fall to shit anyways? It gets unspeakably frustrating sometimes, when my motivation to complete daily, mundane tasks, is determined by my worldview-at-large. I’ve always envied men for their ability to detach emotions from their productivity, for this reason. I often wonder how much more I could get done if it werent for the hours I spend wondering, ‘is this worth doing?’ for every task I’m given.

    My version of your St. Paul’s Cathedral, is the lone man standing in front of the tanks at Tienanmen Square, in defense of democracy. I had a poster of the picture in my dorm room my sophomore year of college.

    I like to think that my need for significance and purpose is a positive thing, because it ensures that I will work towards things that I believe in, and nothing less. The downside is the danger of falling into those “nothing matters, everything is pointless” phases that everyone goes through. Because when I feel blue, and nothing matters, it’s impossible to do anything, at all.

    I am still searching for a balance. I, like you, have learned that caring is not an advantage. But I still remain hopeful that I will end up in a job/life path where it IS an advantage to care. Either that or I will eventually learn to turn off the caring without turning off the productivity.

    I never, ever ever ever, post or reply to blogs for this overwhelming fear of being tracked by The Man, or any man for that matter. I have this secret fear that if someone reads enough of what I write online, they’ll find out how my brain works and be able to control or replicate my thoughts. But your post resonated with some of the deepest parts of my thought processes. And I figured if someone else is brave enough to post about their deepest thoughts, I should be able to do the same.

    Thank you for sharing your journey and thank you for existing! I appreciate even more the way that the internet brings together people from different ends of the earth, reveals how similar we are despite our differences, and for at least one second, makes this earth slightly less lonely.

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