There have been times when I’ve realised all of the privileges that have enabled me to be able to travel as much as I have. It’s easy to feel guilty about having an advantage in life due to the accident of being born in a first-world country to a middle class family. Just being able to travel full-stop is considered an incredible luxury – more like a pipe dream, really – by nearly half of the world’s population, who live on less than $2.50 a day. As a Westerner, if you travel to a developing country, you realise how privileged you actually are. Or, at least, that’s a crucial realisation to have (travel doesn’t automatically give you a balanced perspective of the world).
You may feel guilty when you compare your life situation to your peers. The philosopher Alain de Botton argues in his book Status Anxiety that we feel more anxious about our status in relation to those with slightly higher levels of status than those with much higher levels. We feel more anxiety about an acquaintance being promoted and receiving a pay rise than we do about Bill Gates earning billions. ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ is something we feel more strongly than thoughts about how we’re failing in comparison to the extremely wealthy.
Perhaps this principle also applies to privilege and guilt. We may feel more guilty about being born into a wealthier family than a friend than we do when we compare ourselves to distant strangers living in poverty. In any case, we aren’t all born with equal opportunities. Some people take their privileges for granted. Others feel resentment and bitterness towards those who travel more than they do. And others feel guilty about having it easier than their peers.
All three of these mindsets are misguided. Not even recognising that you are privileged in some way may prevent you from appreciating what you have. Feeling bitter about the lives of others isn’t going to change your or their situation; it’s only going to leave you feeling bitter, which is no fun. And all that feeling guilty does is bring you down – it makes you feel worse about yourself. Besides, you can’t repent for the ‘sin’ of being wealthier than someone else.
A healthy response to privilege – such as being able to enjoy an abundance of travel experiences – isn’t a guilt trip, but gratitude. It makes no sense to feel unwarranted guilt for being dealt a good hand in life. Whilst you can’t change the inherent unfairness of life, you can develop a thankful attitude for the experiences that are available to you. Moreover, fully appreciating what you have often reinforces the impulse to be kind and generous.
The important thing is to be a respectful and ethical traveller; to make the most of the privilege of travel in a way which improves not just your own life, but the lives of others as well. For example, tourism stimulates local economies and creates jobs that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Travel can therefore be an opportunity to spread the wealth. Travelling can also change your outlook, attitudes and behaviours; and allow you to develop yourself in a way that can benefit others – whether abroad or at home.
You don’t want to be embarrassed about taking advantage of opportunities for travel. At the same time, you don’t want to flaunt travel experiences in the way that the Rich Kids of Instagram flaunt their material wealth for admiration. In contrast, gratitude – the development of which does not always come easily or naturally, but which involves constant reminders to yourself about what you have – enriches the experience of travel, for both you and everyone else you meet along the way.