I grew up in a household where my parents emphasized the importance of attitude, the importance of positivity. I was told that though we do not have control over much of what happens to us, we always have the power to choose how we do or do not react to it. We could focus on the glass half empty or the glass half full, and choose whether or not we were grateful for what we already had or focus on what we had not. I was told that much of life’s success was dependent on what was happening in between my ears.
Now, Peace Corps is the epic experiment to test this theory.
I remember when I first came to country, I enjoyed talking to the group of volunteers that were preparing to COS. When prodding them with questions about their experiences, their secret to a successful service, I was always impressed with what they had to say, with the attitudes they had chosen even when faced with the obstacles that Peace Corps is surely to present.
These volunteers grounded their experiences in a humbled perspective, recognizing that though Peace Corps is hard, we volunteered to be here under circumstances of hardship, and this experience, an experience of a lifetime, is one to be grateful for and to not take for granted.
And yes, it is true, Peace Corps is hard. I mean they are pretty transparent about that, too, “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love…” they advertise. We can’t say they didn’t warn us. But it is always shocking to experience something so new and so foreign so quickly. Arriving to country, we step off a plane and we are suddenly stripped of the privileges and comforts we all have grown accustomed to, but they are exactly that, privileges. These volunteers recognized that if their community members can live their lives like this, so can they. And perhaps just as importantly, these volunteers that get to the end of this experience laugh often and frequently. They can laugh at the discomfort; they can laugh at this misunderstandings, and they can laugh at themselves. We are also allowed to have some fun, after all.
However, I will be the first to admit, the fun part is easy to forget when you’re drowning in loneliness because its Christmas time and everyone thinks you’re weird and no one understands you and you don’t understand them. You want to be wrapped up in the coziest blanket on your cozy couch and be surrounded by the comforts of home and loved ones, eating food you like, watching Elf and snuggling your dog, but instead you are hiding in your new, foreign room, sweating, fighting back tears because it is not winter and there is no snow and your family is far away and you are tired of the viveres … Yeah. I cried then and I have cried many times since, but I have learned to remind myself in my most frustrating, disheartening, IM-OVER-THIS moments, that I will one day miss this dearly, and if I don’t miss it, it will surely make a great story.
(Look back to previous blog post Christmas, Crying and Comic Relief.)
I bring this up because, for me, so much of my ‘Typical Day’ is navigating through my feelings, managing and filtering the thoughts that come and go constantly. The hardest part of my day can be refocusing my energy, my frustration, my negative thinking into a place of productivity, to positivity, to gratefulness. Some days it is really easy to be positive, to be optimistic but many days it is not. It is an active choice one has to make, but regardless of where you look, there is always more than enough to be grateful for, plenty to smile about.
In site, we have been granted a whole lot of freedom to more or less work with whom we want, how we want and when we want. For me, this has been one of my favorite parts of service; the autonomy I have been granted has been liberating. I have the opportunity to design my typical day. In my previous jobs, I always despised being micro-managed. I felt that I had been hired to do a job, now please give me the space to do it. Peace Corps certainly has done that.
However, with this freedom, I also recognize that it is up to me whether or not I sink or swim. You come to a community and you see the overwhelming need that exists and then feel a responsibility to do your part. I want to do my part, but often I feel like I should be be doing more, working more, meeting more people, mentoring more kids, opening my doors more, going out more, there is always more. And mixing this great need with the messiness of culture, it is hard. I am reminded everyday that I am not Dominican. I do not speak the language fluently. I am reminded that I don’t understand a lot of things. I am reminded that I will always be “la gringa.” I like to be alone and have privacy, and this, I now know, is very strange and not just strange but can be viewed as being rude. So you just kind of live in a bubble of always feeling incompetent while having an existential crisis but also seeing that the work we are here to do is so important and because the work is so important and you often feel so incompetent you begin to question if you should even been here….
(Insert banging my head against a wall.)
As you can see, it is easy to get caught in this cycle of negative self-talk, of doubt, of pessimissm, of loneliness, of pity. So easy. I wake up everyday and fight these mini battles and some days I win and other days I do not, but I am reminded that tomorrow is a new day, a new opportunity. I know I am not alone in this. I talk to my fellow volunteers and they say the same thing, wonder the same things. Along with managing my internal dialogue, it is the solidarity with these other, amazing, beautiful, inspiring human beings that get me through.
And it should be emphasized that “success” does not rest solely on the shoulders of a volunteer. We are not working alone. This is work to be done hand-in-hand with our communities, but it is easy to get “Peace Corps guilt.” We have to remind ourselves that success can take many forms, that regardless of how incompetent we feel, at the heart of our work is building relationships and luckily that is something we all have the ability to do.
I wanted to write this post, specifically for future and new volunteers that will one day be in their sites, feeling similar things, asking similar questions. We all come in hoping to be volunteers that can make an impact, that we can plant the seeds of sustainable change, and perhaps we are, but often this change is so incremental, is it so subtle, it goes unnoticed. My hope is that I will leave behind at least one good thing for my community, but often I wonder what that will be. I hope that my community will at the very least miss me, hence why I often joke about raising a pig I will leave behind, because if I do nothing else for them at least I can leave them with some puerco to eat at the end of this.
But what happens if you don’t? What happens if you leave nothing behind in your community besides your memory. (You won’t, but just for the purpose of this thought experiment, let’s imagine what if...) What will happen then? Well, one thing that is sure to have happened is you will have changed. If you come into this experience with an open and willing heart, wanting to serve your country and your community, you will be better because of it. Just for being here. Living here. Trying to work here. Hopefully you will be stronger. You will be wiser. You will be softer, kinder, more generous, more realistic, more forgiving. That is success. I may only be a third of my way through my experience, but I can already feel these seedlings of change being planted within myself; I can feel them sprouting their little change-roots, and by the time I finish my service and leave this country, I hope to be a little tree that one day will be able to provide refuge and comfort to future generations under my shady branches.
This is what I remind myself everyday. This thought gets me through the mundane, the difficult, the messy, the tears. This thought gets me through my ‘Typical Day.’
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” –Gandhi