It’s a question that’s been on my mind recently. You’ve (probably) got one life: are you going to enjoy every single second you get, or are you going to worry about things bigger than yourself and attempt to make a difference?
Putting yourself first
These are obviously not mutually exclusive. You need to save yourself before you can even start to try saving the world. In life-threatening situations, it’s always “put on your own mask before you help others.”
I strongly believe in putting yourself first. Because without your own health and stability, you won’t be of much value to others. You can’t rescue someone if you’re drowning yourself. You can’t prioritise others if you are hanging on by a thread.
And it’s basic survival skills: save yourself. It’s your human instinct. So as always, there’s nuance to this question. It isn’t exactly this or that.
But a week has 168 hours, and if you spend about 100 of them eating, sleeping and working, there’s only so much time left for what you aspire to do.
As a recently graduated adult, whose so-called ‘gap year’ has accidentally (and gracefully) come to an end, I regularly ponder on the question of what my life is for. What do I value, and what do I want to make of it?
As a healthy and white Dutch woman, I’m aware of the privilege I was born with. I am educated, I have a huge family that loves and supports me, and I am (sort of) financially stable.
I was lucky to travel to incredible places before Covid, and my mum always prioritised travel over anything (she illegally took me out of school to go to Australia for months when I was four).
And I can write. I have a voice, I even have a platform. On this blog there are around 500 of you reading my words. At Lovin Malta there are probably thousands more. And when I decide to rant about issues on my Instagram story, there’s another good 00 of you watching me do so.
So what do I want to make of it? If I indeed have one life, and these are the circumstances I was given, then how do I make sure I live a fulfilled one?
After nearly four years of living abroad and becoming the adult that I am, I’ve experienced a lot. I travelled through Australia and Asia for eight months, doing exactly what I love: studying, scuba diving and exploring. Two years later, these were still the best months I’ve ever experienced.
But I’ve also worked hard. From my first year in university onward I’ve taken extra courses, participated in student and environmental activism, written about pressing issues, protested and spoken to people in power and more. And it was fulfilling. To actually see change happen because you decided to raise your voice is a rare feeling that I cherish.
By the end of my course, I had a mental breakdown. I spent eight days in hospital and several months at home. It took me a year to recover. And now that I am back on track and my recovery-gap year has come to an end, I’m asking myself where to go from here on.
I decided to break it down into two options: do you want to save the world or do you want to save yourself?
Let me explain it in a local context. As much as I love Malta, there are a lot of depressing developments. As a friend once described it: “It’s like a combination of paradise and a trash dump.”
If you don’t know the island, this is Malta for starters: a beautiful country where corruption runs rampant, and anything can be done for a dime.
Though a democracy on paper, reality is far from it. If you need drugs, you go to the police. If you need justice, you call someone up. Stay as far away from the juridical system as you can, because once you make your way into the island’s bureaucracy you might get stuck forever.
Nature is rare. The Minister of Infrastructure has an infamous anti-tree disease, and aims to destroy every bit of greenery there is left on the island. He is managing very well.
Going abroad is always a breath of fresh air. Not just because the island is filled with cars and heavily polluted, or because there is insufficient greenery to produce enough oxygen for half a million people - but also because every step you take on the rock is noticed.
You can’t wipe your ass without someone knowing about it. Whatever you do or say is noted, registered, and talked about. Whoever you think you are is decided by the people you have been surrounded by since you grew up with them in kindergarten.
Everyone is related, and you might have to double check whether someone isn’t accidentally your third cousin if you’re looking to shag. Needless to say, that comes with an astonishing degree of nepotism.
I know I have a lot of criticism as a foreigner that came here for free education and the island lifestyle. I’m not going ‘back to my country’, despite the many Maltese boomers that would love to suggest that.
Why? Because I criticise the island out of the belief that we can do better. I love Malta with all my heart. The culture, the sun, the laid-back lifestyle - I’m a big fan. And thanks to my (poor) attempts to integrate, I feel at home.
But to reach its full potential, there is a lot that needs to change. It is heart-breaking to have seen the island abused by incompetent business men and corrupt politicians. The destruction dictatorship marches on, and the once beautiful island is turning into an eyesore.
What can you do?
It’s been like this for ages. We know about corruption, we know about negative developments, but there is little you can contribute as an individual. At least so we think.
So it feels natural to give up hope. Malta was recently rated as one of the worst places to live in for expats, having dropped from the 2nd to the 50th place in a poll. In a Times article a lady tells her friend: “You’re young, get out while you still can.”
I know that the majority of my Maltese friends are planning to leave the island for a better future abroad. I don’t know anyone who is excited to raise their children in whatever Malta will be like in a decade or two.
So they decide to take what they can. They buy property and rent it out, or leave to stop paying taxes that directly flows into ministers’ pockets. They look at their home like something to take from rather than to give back to.
Foreigners do the exact same thing. Of the 20 percent of foreigners that Malta’s population currently has, the majority works in iGaming. The gambling industry is the only one on the island where you can make good money, and jobs are reserved for foreigners as it requires the knowledge of a language other than English or Maltese.
Though most of them fall in love with the island, it’s hard to find anyone that is planning to stay permanently. Because we can tell - the country is headed in a depressing direction. Malta has become a place to enjoy, but not to settle.
And if you don’t plan on staying where you are, dealing with the country’s deeply rooted problems isn’t something you need to be bothered about. It’s a vicious cycle.
You might as well try to make the most of it. So we ignore the problems and we head out for drinks. We neglect the state of the country for the sake of just living our best life.
That works. Because with a good income and loads of public holidays, Malta is heaven.
But I don’t work in iGaming
I told myself: if I’m going to work, I want to work in an industry I can vouch for. I want to be part of something meaningful. If I'm going to spend 40 hours a week on something, please let it be something I can be proud of.
I can’t sit back and relax when corruption is rampant, when injustice rules the country, and when people suffer for no reason at all. I can’t relax when I know crooks are filling their pockets with our hard-earned money. I can’t be okay with trees being cut down while we were enjoying their shadow and breathing their air.
In short, it pisses me off. And I feel the need to act upon it. Because as I said, I am privileged. I was born with a privilege without ever having to work for it. And if I am merely going to use that privilege to benefit from it myself, I’m doing an injustice to the rest of the world.
Because I am convinced there are those that are better, smarter or brighter than I am, but in a less fortunate situation. And I am convinced that everyone deserves an equal shot at life. As long as that isn’t the case because of incompetent politicians and malfunctioning systems, I will sure as hell try to do something about it.
It might not be much, I know that. Rome wasn’t built in a day. But at the very least I’ve been vocal about issues I care about, and my words have raised awareness and anger. That’s what I want. I want to be able to discuss issues, to make people consider how unfair and fucked up certain things are. We can all contribute in our own way, as long as we want to.
It’s not an easy thing to do. And I agree that maybe saving myself, getting a job in iGaming and making money off a country that is willing to let me, sounds a lot more relaxed.
But that isn’t what my life is for. I can contribute so much more to society than just paying my taxes. So I will, because I know there are those who can’t.
That doesn’t mean I am constantly upset, angry or anxious about all the world’s problems. Believe me, I love a careless day off as much as you do. I love to let go of my worries and blame all issues on the rest of the world to continue life unbothered. (I sometimes even get coffee in a disposable cup when I forget to bring my own).
But there are ways in which I know I can contribute. If it isn’t by writing, it will be by speaking up. And if it isn’t by speaking up, it will be by educating myself or consuming consciously. And if it isn’t that, I’ll find another way to impact the world for the better.
I didn’t mean for this post to become a plea for ‘doing good’. I wanted it to include arguments for and against being an active citizen, and the pros and cons of simply enjoying the time you were given on earth. To look at both options, and what it means to save yourself or the world.
I asked myself: why would you worry about things so much bigger than you, if you can just make the best of the life you have?
Perhaps this is my answer.
I know I could ride the waves of life without worrying about climate change, racism and corruption. But there is a part of me that knows I will not feel fulfilled. A good beer and a day at the beach can only keep me unbothered for so long.
As with everything, there isn’t one right answer. There are so many different angles to consider, and I would love to hear yours.
So feel free to reach out to me. Let’s have a chat about what exactly we are doing here, and how we try to make the best out of the little life we get.
Find me on Instagram @belledejong or send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.