Why I do what I do
I received a lot of hate during The 40% Plan campaign—in The Chronicle, the Weedicle, on Facebook, and in person. I didn’t enjoy it, but to be clear, I can’t complain about it. You don’t play football and then grumble about being tackled. But I mention this fact for the question it raises—why bring this upon myself? Indeed, the “why are you doing this?” question was one I received repeatedly throughout the campaign. I was a second-semester senior, with his next four years planned out, launching a campus-wide movement for a very esoteric and seemingly random amendment to a student government constitution. Didn’t I have anything better to do with my life?
Today I want to answer the “why did you do this?” question—but I don’t want to directly answer it in relation to The 40% Plan. Because frankly, we’re all tired of hearing about it, and no one more so than me. Instead, I want to answer the broader question, the more important question—why do I do what I do at all? I think it’s a significant question for all of us to ask ourselves, especially in college. And I’ll answer it in part by delving in to two aspects of my identity.
The first I have written about before—my grandmother’s journey to this country. After World War II she was forced in to labor in East Germany as a nanny and housekeeper, given just enough food each day to survive. A river existed nearby, dividing East from West Germany, and eventually my grandmother resolved to flee, asking the local car mechanic the location of the river’s shallowest part. Crossing in the dead of night while hiding from armed guards, wading in water up to her neck despite being unable to swim, my grandmother successfully escaped. She made her way to Berlin and then America. This story serves as a perpetual source of inspiration to me, reminding me of the American Dream, but above all, of the sacrifices paid by those who preceded me.
The second aspect I have written about before as well—I am a cancer survivor. But while I’ve written a great deal about my battle with cancer itself—maybe too much—I haven’t detailed as significantly the struggle that (hopefully) comes afterward: survivorship. Survivorship, simply put, is the process of determining how one’s experience fighting cancer impacts his or her life and gives it greater purpose.
My survivorship journey has been acutely conflicting. On the one hand I feel a need to live in the moment—soak in life to its fullest. I wrote about this in a column my junior year. But there is another element—one that directly and consistently counteracts the first. While the former is a desire to live in the now, the other is a desire to press on to the future; I feel an unrelenting obligation not to waste my life because, frankly, I value so greatly the second chance I have at it. This most often manifests itself in the form of ambition, but in reality it is a form of fear—a fear of failing to live up to my potential.
I believe fundamentally that every person is born with tremendous potential. Some of us are born great artists. Others great scientists. Some amazing writers, and others fantastic entrepreneurs. I call these gifts from God. Others might call them genetic coding. Some others might call them simply destiny. What matters most, I think, is the acknowledgement that all human life has inherent value and the potential to impact society. It is this belief that gives my past struggle with cancer purpose—it ignites an unremitting desire to discover what my gifts might be and to use them the best I can. This isn’t to say I consider myself especially gifted. It isn’t to say I consider myself especially brilliant. But it is to say I care very deeply about not wasting whatever gifts I might have been given. This pursuit has been the defining mission of my survivorship since August 23rd 2008, the day I swallowed my last chemotherapy pill.
You see, what unites the many threads of this column—my grandmother’s story to my survivorship journey to my belief in the gifts of God—is this: all of us are born blessed, but far too few are born with the opportunity to realize their blessing. My grandma did not have the opportunities I have today. Cancer patients across this country do not have the opportunities I have today. Children walking in to a crumbling school, if they have a school at all, do not have the opportunities I have today. When you consider that twenty-two percent of U.S. children live in poverty and 22,000 children die each day from destitution, we can, for better or worse, proclaim ourselves members of the world’s superheroes. It is another question whether we deserve this honor, but it does us no good to deny our privilege.
We love to talk about privilege on this campus, usually focused on race, gender, or sexual orientation. To me, survivorship and my grandma’s story, they’re both about another kind of privilege—the privilege of opportunity. The privilege of the opportunity that health brings, that education brings, that the sweat and effort of preceding generations bring. I am privileged to have professors that want me to succeed, a family that loves me, and a safe country to call home. Above all, I have the privilege to be breathing—the privilege to be living at all. The truth of the matter is that, as much as I might want to believe my successes in life are the result of my own doing, they are just as much, if not more, due to the work of others who created an environment in which I could thrive. Others have bestowed upon me the privilege of opportunity, and it is my responsibility to fulfill the promise. I am utterly committed to doing so.
I truly thought The 40% Plan would make Duke a better place. I truly feel government is my best way to impact the world. I very well might be wrong on both fronts. Seventy percent of the campus thought I was wrong on at least one of them. But the fact of the matter is this—I don’t regret it. I will continue searching for the talents I might have been given, I will continue to use them the best I know how, to fight for things I believe in—because to do any less is to betray that child of six years ago, laying in a hospital bed in Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, fighting desperately to live and praying for opportunities like the ones I have today.
It’s as simple as this—in keeping with Jesus’s parable of the talents, I think wasting opportunity is a sin. Not repeatedly searching for ways to use your gifts to help other people is a sin. Not respecting the great privilege that others have afforded you is a sin. And to the end of my days I will seek to recognize these realities. It is why I do what I do.
Daniel Strunk is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Thursday. Send Daniel a message on Twitter @DanielFStrunk.