Monday, March 25, 2013

The Nature of a Volunteer: An Introspection

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, so bear with me ...

Being a volunteer seems easy; we do the work we love, we explore the world, and we get to control our projects, our involvement, and what kind of volunteer we want to be. We have relative freedom and on paper, in concise sentences, it all sounds rather inspiring – a dream come true.

And, yet, being a volunteer is the most challenging thing many of us will ever do. “The toughest job you’ll ever love.”  This overused phrase is our catch-all, our mantra; we see it everywhere (and many of us hate it). When we can’t find the words to explain what we do, we employ it. When things get hard, we are reminded of it by Peace Corps staff. The nature of the job is unpredictable and unpredictable is tough.

Peace Corps is an experience so unique it can’t be compared, not even with other Peace Corps experiences; expectations are useless. Unfortunately, existing in an environment without precedent, without pattern or explanation, affects us, changes us in minute ways - ways that don’t exist outside of this experience, ways that challenge self-perception and beg for explanation.

The nature of a volunteer is contradictory. It breeds competitiveness and flexibility (both fueled by the wish to be a good volunteer ... whatever that means); site-guilt and exploration (an often painful struggle between staying at site as much as possible and leaving site as much as possible, usually to maintain sanity); compassion and an ironic lack of empathy (which, at times, manifests itself in the form of unfortunate and misguided bigotry). Watching the jump from trainee to volunteer is a curious thing – we feverishly track psychological charts (which I took great pleasure in burning) and attempt to navigate this winding, adapting emotional environment unlike anything we've ever encountered (see:

For many of us the Peace Corps is its own purpose; upon arriving, and lacking direction, we can become apathetic and contradictory – ever grateful for the experience, but as quick to judge, tire, and anger as we are to laugh, love, and enjoy. Sometimes it's easier to join in on nitpicking and ethnocentrism; we start to make unfair assumptions, lean on less-than-desirable coping mechanisms. Some days it takes everything we have to be kind, patient and gracious; we stumble, we lash out, we punish. We forget that, as well as being kind, patient, and gracious in our interactions, we must be kind, patient, and gracious with ourselves. Contrary to popular belief, every day doesn't need to be an adventure; nothing needs to be justified - we are already here. The only thing that matters is making every day worth it, which is entirely up to us.

Some of us will end up thinking our host country owes us something, that we are sacrificing something better to be here (ignoring that we choose to stay, that our experiences, however short-lived, will be worth it). Some of us will find it difficult to interact with people, walking a line of ethnocentrism; expecting some form of special treatment and consideration without intending to give any. Some days it will escape us entirely that everyone has a story, everyone has a reason, and everyone deserves a little dignity. There will be times when everything that compelled us and inspired us will be lost to us. There will always be bad days.

This is why the job is so tough: mentally, it’s exhausting; in terms of activity, it’s sporadic; physically, it’s full of surprises and anomalies. All of these things will, at some point, cause us to forget laughter; we will forget to go easy on a world that is trying very hard to interact with us (even as we try very hard to interact back). The worst of us will make unhappy choices and grow unappreciative (even as they plan to highlight, italicize and bold this experience at the top of their resumes).

I guess the secret (to my own continued satisfaction, at least), isn't in some grand experience that was perfect in every way. It’s in forgiving the experience for what it can be – challenging, exhausting, and permanent. We accept the good things, the amazing life-changing possibilities, as soon as we apply, but every coin has two sides. Refusing to acknowledge this strips the experience of its reality, refuses to consider, observe and appreciate life in its many forms (however absurd they may be). There is no perfect placement; a great site will only be as great as a volunteer's reaction to it (we must take at least that much responsibility). We can’t please everyone and we won’t; it won't always be easy; we will be noticed; we are different ... but didn't we always know these things?

All of this changes us indelibly, it is a fact of which we are constantly reminded; but I believe we have a choice in the direction of those changes. Life isn't perfect; what is Peace Corps, if not just another form of life? We made a leap, we took a chance (and it's true that many of us put everything on the line), but that's exactly what makes it worth it: we've been given the opportunity to do something most people aren't doing - the challenge is not wasting the experience while it’s here.