Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Leaving the Peace Corps Behind ...

Re-acclimating to normal life is going to be more difficult than I thought, but not for the reasons you would assume.

I want to start by saying that leaving anything 'behind' is a myth. Experiences shape you, they affect you long after they end, and they usually take up residence without your notice. They will shift opinions, change behaviors, and continue to pepper your vocabulary with their influence. It's evolution in the simplest form.

The way we close our service brings the expectation that once our service has 'closed' it has ended; it is a chapter in a book that is set firmly in the past. We are left with anecdotes, pictures, and the kind of wistful memories shared with other friends struggling to reintegrate. We end up focusing on the separation of experiences, but why do we feel so strange if our experiences are so separate?

The Peace Corps, by nature, forces people out of their comfort zones. It forces relationships to be made and middle ground to be found. We recognize that, despite the many annoyances of culture shock, our expectations (based on a context completely separate from our current experiences) are unfair. We become compassionate and forgive the faults we see because we understand that our job is not to change, but to affect change. It is an important distinction. And so we create relationships, start conversations, and try to empower those within our adopted cultures to make the changes they wish to see.

It is an art and it is incredibly difficult to do. It takes a level of self-awareness that is hard to adopt, but is  necessary when one exists so far out of context; most of the time we do it without thinking.

Having adopted a new form of interpersonal interaction we return to America changed, but we aren't used to this. We aren't used to applying obvious cultural differences to a place we call home. We assume we understand America completely and this perceived comfort zone comes with expectations that no longer apply. We are different; we operate at a different level; we see things from an outside perspective. We observe because, for two years, observation meant the difference between success and failure and, suddenly, we start to see things we didn't recognize before the Peace Corps. It can be incredibly frustrating.

The thought that we 'close' our service, end a chapter and move forward, is a misrepresentation of our experience and the lessons that we worked so hard to apply. It isn't a 'separate' experience, it doesn't exist somewhere outside of us - what we learned about were people; what we did was adapt.

What I've found over the last two weeks is that I notice more; I notice things about people that probably always existed but didn't seem out of the ordinary when it worked within my context. And it seems difficult to fit those people back into my life - people who no longer see the world like I do, who have faults I clearly recognize, who, astonishingly enough, require the lesson I learned in Africa to be applied to them in America. It's disconcerting; it takes patience.

And it's not that America has changed and become more disappointing, but that I've changed and have become more aware. And I have to remind myself that it would be incredibly unfair not to apply the universal understanding and compassion I adopted in the Peace Corps to my life in America, or to idolize Ghana and my experiences when I know, full well, that people everywhere have the exact same potential to impress and disappoint.

I cannot run away from these things, they will exist wherever I go. I can, however, accept that I will always have a unique perspective and that it's okay that America isn't perfect. My Peace Corps experience is not somewhere behind me because it lives at my side. I will notice things now, and some of them will disappoint, but maybe - just maybe - I can begin to apply my experience as a volunteer and affect change where it really matters: in America, in my context.

So, happy hunting, my fellow change agents and remember to keep an open mind.