Monday, July 22, 2013

What the Peace Corps Taught Me about Myself

The first thing the Peace Corps taught me about myself was that we were strangers, acquaintances really.  My heart and imagination, my resilience and motivations, my capabilities and my limits – everything I thought I knew about myself – were slowly illuminated. Like the moon arching its way across a darkened sky, I changed constantly.

Until I moved to Africa I hadn't spent very much time alone. I’d spent time with myself, of course, but always within the context of a culture I knew and understood - a world I belonged to even when I rebelled against it. In the Peace Corps I became a true outsider, a player to be watched with curiosity, humor and, sometimes, distrust. A distinct line existed between me and Ghana. I was isolated.

There’s nothing quite like trying to be a part of something foreign, trying very hard to understand and adopt it, while existing entirely outside of it. My ability to make friends, something I’d never really struggled with, became a most coveted skill. I was tolerant and respectful, I forgave people for their shortcomings and attempted to understand them. It was my first true application of empathy.

While I struggled to understand cultural differences, some of them tragic and misguided, I became acutely aware of my own shortcomings and my limited understanding of the world. Some days were distracting, but others were blissful and as things became normal and I accepted my post as an outsider, I was struck by moments of clarity and mindfulness.

In this clarity I started to witness myself. I began to live with myself. I watched the slow crawl of growth, the strengthening of skill, a new sense of comfort that stretched its muscles within my mind. I was like a solar light - warmed and energized by my work in the day, humming with creativity and awareness at night. I was happy and it was a beacon, a lighthouse for the darkened nights (and there were some very dark nights).

I spent two years spelunking, traversing and climbing - sometimes blindly - though the landscape of my mind. I hung from cliffs, stared into chasms and found deep caverns - one spilling into the other in an endless exploration of me. I called out to the echoes and found myself lost. I circled the same passageways and realizing they were things I would have to revisit again and again. I began my quest to leave no path un-mapped. Closing my eyes I watched my thoughts dance to the beat of my heart. I followed them to their origin, saw them to their end and like the foreign world around me, sought to understand them because I never truly had.

What I found was an incredible capacity for love - the largeness of my heart and the rate of its (continued) growth is still very hard to explain, harder still to measure. I developed a sense of empathy that surprises me, reminds me of myself when I am liable to forget. I realized my own resilience, though it took the death of a friend to realize just how resilient I’d become. For a time I seemed to fall very far, invisible and lost among the ruins of my grief. Though the pain is still strong, I know this land and I have managed to find solid ground again.

I am constantly reminded that my creativity, my ability to adapt and my willingness to learn - brought on the backs of ants and diligently carved from my own determination - allow me to do anything. My efforts, my optimism and my absolute stubbornness will lead me there eventually.

The title of this blog is actually quite wrong. It would be more accurate to tell you that the Peace Corps introduced me to myself and I can finally say that I am beginning to know her. She changes and shifts beneath my hands and feet, but I am no longer afraid to explore. I guess you could call the Peace Corps the most difficult trust fall to accomplish; I didn't end up catching anyone but myself.