August 22, 2010

It's easy, but somehow letting go's the hardest part

I do believe that one of the most bizarre and unsettling epiphanies one can have is the realization that continuing to serve in the Peace Corps is taking the easy way out (incidentally it is also an unexpectedly unnerving discovery on the plane ride home when you realize that airplane bathrooms are actually quite luxurious, but more on that later). 

During staging (the orientation-type event held in the United States, just before each training class departs to their country of service) each trainee is instructed to enumerate his or her reasons for joining the Peace Corps—which, at that point are incredibly obvious, considering that most volunteers have just spent about 18 months of their lives obsessing over the application process.  Trainees are then encouraged to keep this list of motivating factors with them, to revisit during the inevitable times when the stress of Peace Corps life creates a blinding haze making it impossible to remember why they are even there in the first place.  It is actually a good recommendation, because those instances certainly do exist, and it can be very easy to get lost in the fog of daily life and entirely forget where you came from, where you are going, and just how far you have already traveled.  Reflecting on the big picture can cast light on the situation, and make volunteers feel a little less lost.

Of course, this approach hinges on the assumption that a volunteer’s work is actually having some sort of impact, and that the volunteer’s experience is actually at least somewhat in alignment with his or her motives.  And I think that both of those contingencies are true in the vast majority of cases.  However, Peace Corps service is not quite like other jobs, with cookie-cutter job descriptions, expectations, responsibilities, rules, etc.  It genuinely is the case that each and every volunteer’s experience is 100% different.  Every counterpart is different, every organization is different, every village is different, every housing situation is different—and these things really do add up.  And in my instance, when I referred back to my list of motivating factors (well, the list in my head; I didn’t pull out the actual list…I’m not quite that big of a nerd ;o), instead of feeling like my feet were planted firmly on the ground, it felt as though at that moment, the earth tore open below me, and I was left staring down at a deep abyss. 

Now I have to say, I considered enumerating all of the reasons why my placement was not the right fit for me.  But frankly I don’t like being negative (I know all of my PCV venting buddies are saying “aa mme!” right now, but I really am generally a positive person when I’m not in the hospital drinking out of a pee cup and stuff [I just realized I never told that story on here, so non-Bots9ers...just pretend you never read that]), and, despite my experience, I do still have a tremendous amount of respect for the Peace Corps and my fellow Botswana volunteers, and do not wish to implicitly disparage their work or image, just so that I can somehow validate a decision that I know in my heart is right.  So I will just say that my situation was such that I was not able to actually do work of any substance.  Now, this is a feeling that is common amongst PCV’s, because many PCV’s begin service rather starry-eyed, hoping to “change the world,” only to find that the actual impact of their service is much more subtle and intangible than they initially expected.  This was not the situation in my case—there were significant, concrete barriers which entirely prevented me from actually accomplishing anything at all, subtle or obvious, small or large, and the longer I stayed, the more apparent it became that the situation would only get worse. 

I am a pretty tough person—I think most people who know me will attest that while I have many flaws, just as anyone else, weakness is not among them.  I have a very high threshold for difficult situations—I’ve been vegan for over twelve years, I’ve run a marathon, I’ve rescued dangerous animals from crisis situations.  And, frankly, because of difficulties with my homestay, my hospitalization, and finally additional issues with my site placement, I endured more than my fair share here in Botswana.  And the thing is, I would have been fine with it—I did not join the Peace Corps for a posh house or an easy ride.  I joined it because I wanted to work.  But that’s just it.  Thinking back upon my motivations for service, the one thing I came to do is the one thing that I wasn’t doing.  I had become so caught up in the struggles and excitement of Peace Corps life—as is necessary when adapting to a new situation—that I had lost sight of my purpose there. 

I don’t know if it is just me, or if this is central to human nature, but the second that I realize that something is off-center in my life, it consumes me until I can figure out how to fix it.  One of my favorite quotes is “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony” – Gandhi.  And at that moment, I realized my life was out of tune and way off-key.  I needed to pick a side, or else I was about to come crashing down.  So, I began tirelessly evaluating all of the pros and cons of my service, turning over every possible situation in my head.  Ultimately, my reasons for staying boiled down to four things: fear of letting my friends and family down, my fondness for all of the other PCV’s, my resume, and the concern that I would get home and regret it.  My reasons for leaving: everything else. 

So.  The fear of letting people down.  That’s pretty scary.  I have been so completely inaccessible and unable to reciprocate all of the amazing support that my friends and family have given me—care packages, letters, entirely one-sided phone conversations (when you don’t get to talk with any native English speakers for weeks at a time, and you like to talk as much as I do, you wind up with a LOT to say).  How could I not feel like I was letting them down by coming home?  And what if they thought less of me for it?  But then again, isn’t staying and accepting all of their kindness and gifts, when I’m not doing anything to earn it, actually letting them down more?  And I have been blessed with quite possibly the most supportive group of family and friends in the world…ever.  People like that don’t stop loving you just because you decide to change paths.

Next: the life of PCV’s.  It’s pretty fun hanging out with other PCV’s.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—I think most PCV’s are about the kindest, most genuine, motivated, fun, adventurous people I’ve ever known.  To leave all of these people and the “second family” feeling they provide, to miss out on all of the upcoming vacations and parties—especially since we didn’t get to do any of that sort of thing during lockdown—well, that sucks.  But I didn’t come here for vacations and parties.  That’s kind of the opposite of work, no?

And, ah, the resume…well, that’s some scary stuff.  Completing Peace Corps service opens more doors than anything else I will probably do; it means a check for over $6,000, and an additional two years of job security and healthcare (*sigh* healthcare *sigh*).  And next year is Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary, so you can bet there were probably going to be some kickin’ celebrations in order—maybe even something Presidential (all speculation, of course).  But the thing is, the Peace Corps is not like a regular job.  It’s not like something that you power through to climb the corporate ladder.  To me, Peace Corps service means something, and if you’re just doing it to get through it, you’re demeaning the whole system.  It’s scary to throw those perks away, but it also feels unfair to get them without doing anything to earn them—and that’s exactly what was happening in my situation.  And, again, that’s not why I came here.  I came here to work.

As far as regrets go—which would I regret more, spending the next two years living for the weekend and taking some admittedly amazing vacations with friends, but accomplishing absolutely nothing, and feeling miserable most of the time?  Or sucking it up, going home, and starting fresh?  Different people have different answers, but for me, it was clear.  And honestly, I don’t really believe in regrets—I’m a “win some or learn some” kinda gal.  I think if you really want something, you just have to keep working at it, and you CAN make it happen.  And during the period when I was unsure about whether I would gain acceptance into the Peace Corps, I did a great deal of research on alternative volunteer opportunities.  Granted, none of them offer all that the Peace Corps does (when one is placed in a situation where one actually gets the opportunity to work like a Peace Corps volunteer, that is).  But they are out there.  And my time in the Peace Corps alleviated most of my fears about going “on my own;” I think I have grown more and learned so much in the last four months of my life, more than even I expected to; maybe that was really the purpose of all of this--to prepare me so that I can regroup, pick my own project, come back to Africa, and hit the ground running. 

The more I thought about it, the clearer the answer became.  All of my motivations for staying were rooted in fear—fear of losing friends and family, fear of unemployment, fear of making the “wrong” decision.  And fear is absolutely always the wrong reason for doing anything (well, unless you’re being chased by a bear or hippo or something, then you should probably go with it).  As much as I value Peace Corps service, in my case, it was only a label.  And I care more about the work than the label.  So I had no choice but to tear it off and take the leap to the other side.  And even if I fall, at least I’ll know I was headed in the right direction. 

(And, yes, I know the cliff metaphor is tired, but it is tired for a reason—it fits a lot of situations.  And I just made a major life decision, so be nice! ;o)