Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Peace Corps Guilt Complex

Forget what they told you in Sunday school – the Catholic Church ain’t got squat on the Peace Corps.

Ask any volunteer, currently serving or recently returned, and they’ll tell you that, along with life-changing experiences and the opportunity to be useful to the world, serving in the Peace Corps produces a particular brand of guilt – guilt a lá Peace Corps. It’s a constant companion, causes a continuous ‘project-piggy-back’ affect, and is usually accompanied by the words, “What have I done recently?” and “Did I really just watch all twenty seasons of Lost in two months?”

Peace Corps guilt: it’s the reason most of us never sleep-in past sunrise; why some of us refuse to ask anyone for help; and why we all wish we more to say than, “well I negotiated the crap out of the lady selling tomatoes today ..." to anyone back home.

After applying, I’m sure the majority of us didn’t think we’d be flying in and out of burning buildings or performing heroic, life-saving acts all the time (Who am I kidding? My cape is sitting unused at the back of my closet as I type), but I’m willing to bet more than half of us expected an ‘existential, blow-your-mind’ kind of moment every day. What actually ends up occurring is a series of simple, personal changes – the kind only really noticed from afar. But, in the absence of sudden and constant existentialism, we fall into this bizarre, PC limbo: measuring our successes in grand gestures, rather than recognizing the significance of baby steps. I guess we require an adjustment of expectations.

Volunteering in the Peace Corps comes with a fair amount of expectations; usually they're held by volunteers and their families, but can affect anyone who happens to pass one of those epic Peace Corps posters which incite thoughts like “I’ll be changing lives!" or "Give me twenty-seven months and I'll change the world!!"

Both of those statements are absolutely true, but their occurrence is likely to be subtle; many of us won’t see the behavior change we work to achieve. This doesn’t mean it won’t occur, but the things we teach and strive for are not designed to give immediate gratification – it’s much more valuable. More realistic is the fact that our lives will be changed, that we will come back different.

On an average day, I might spend less than five hours outside; maybe I'll have a bad language and want nothing more than to watch Harry Potter continuously; maybe all I’ve done in six months is piggy-back someone else’s projects and, sometimes, it’s all I can do just to understand the ever-changing relationships around me. Most of what I get into is the same stuff I did back home – I read a lot, I watch a lot of movies, I play board games and do crossword puzzles. I figured I'd end up doing these things, but I always imagined they'd be the punctuation marks of a really epic, life-changing, adventurous sentence, rather than the other way around.

Having been at site for six months, I can grasp the concept that having two real friends is a big success or that leaving the house to fetch water is a legitimate, cultural activity, but the grandiose expectation I created for myself can still make me feel like it’s still not ‘enough.’

So how am I supposed to combat this daily struggle? How is it that I keep from sinking into the quicksand of PC guilt? I guess it’s best to 'keep it simple, stupid." So, embark with me, if you will, out West - into the landscape of simply keeping it simple:
Do I talk to people regularly? (check)
Do I learn new words, even if I'm unsure how to use them? (check)
Do I make an effort to be involved in cultural displays/festivals/activities? (check)
Do I enjoy myself, even on a boring day? (check)
Do people know my name? (check)
Have I recently invited all the children to watch Harry Potter WITH me as I learn to weave baskets with them??? (double check plus, plus, plus and cultural bonus points)

... you see? It all counts, really. As long as I keep doing this - writing about it and sharing it and making it significant, I can't really go wrong right? I mean, I've achieved almost half of my to-do-list (the one I OCDingly wrote within my first weeks here) and I don't even feel the need to check things off or compare anymore. It's all in the name of progress!!

I guess, sometimes, I forget that, even on a ‘boring’ day, it’s likely I’m doing things that are completely out of the ordinary. If I'm being honest with myself, it's not really boring either: every day is a little adventure into what will hopefully become awesome (grandiose and flighty) stories that I tell my grandchildren (they can decide for themselves which parts are exaggerated and/or completely fabricated) ...