I remember first coming across the usage “what is at stake” at the Politics course during my second year in university. We had to take a course from outside our own Faculty and I picked this introductory to democracy course offered by the Social Sciences Faculty. Basically there is a risk of sacrificing something in basically any political system we can ever possibly imagine.
But I am not talking about politics. We all have to make choices in life and that often involves risk and sacrifices. Recently there are so many confessions by individuals who claim to have found true happiness and meaning of life through an act of utmost bravery – namely giving up one’s existing career and life to embark on another – that bravery most of all inspires awe and envy and all kinds of mixed feelings in people. It is especially brave for those who have had a very good qualification and a very good career that guarantees a very handsome income.
But why? Because they have more at stake?
When I left for my working holiday, many friends congratulated on my bravery. I would say my qualifications as a student of Literature are decent enough, but it is true they are not a Law degree or a MBA from Cambridge or Harvard. I never earned much as I have always worked in the cultural sector and it is a truth universally acknowledged that they never make big money nor pay good wages in the cultural sector. So I assume I do not have much at stake.
During my working holiday I met a young man at a farm where we worked for board. At 32, he was the same age as me, and like me, he had resigned from his job and embarked on one year’s journey. He was a good looking guy from Tahiti, spoke fluent French and English, and had worked in New York in investment banking for some years. Undoubtedly he was very smart and very charismatic, with a very warm and open manner. He was no snob and he never thought it beneath him to perform the lowliest labour. In fact he had a very healthy body and bore the hard labour very well. When I asked him, he said he was not sure yet but he might not return to his former career as a banker. In fact he might go to a small village somewhere in Asia and run a guesthouse, or something modest like that. Neither of us thought it was a big risk or a big sacrifice.
There is also this young girl friend who first gave up her Law studies to pursue the Arts – a very brave albeit incomprehensible act to most people. After graduating with the best results among her peers and receiving an offer to further studies, she gave that all up for someone she met during a short trip and is now living in a foreign land where she has no friend and cannot speak the language, not to mention school and work. Even I was a little surprised by her choice – but she related it as if it was the only sensible thing to do.
Looking at these two wonderful friends I am more certain than ever. People choose to risk their lives not because they are brave, but the exact opposite. For those people who can have everything they want but choose not to have them, there is nothing at stake at all. The girl in the online article who graduated from Yale and who gave up her $95,000 job to move to an island to scoop ice-cream, there is nothing at stake for her neither. Because most often than not, people who choose this kind of life, are educated in a liberal environment and wiser than most people around them. While they see through to the core values of life beyond pure material gain, they are more ready than the others to pursue what they think possesses real worth, without suffering much sacrifice. Because what they give up does not hold the same value as it has for the others. And even if that one choice proves wrong, they can always return to their former lives, or restart elsewhere, and they must succeed given they abilities. Nobody is going to starve or lose a limb or die because of their choice.
It is people who are privileged who have the freedom to choose. It is for people who have no other life choice, who cannot afford to change their lives, that the stakes are high. If you do not have a degree, do the lowliest jobs that do not require much skill, earn the minimum wages and have a family of 12 to feed, and you choose to give up your job to pursue a dream, I will say that is real bravery. It is very unfair but true.