Friday, December 14, 2012

Peace Corps Guilt: Not Simple

This article was just recently published on the Huffington Post:

Esther Katcoff: Peace Corps Guilt

Following her article was a small flurry of responses including a call to "include your thoughts" from RPCV groups. Indeed, Esther's article resonates with me in many ways:

Reputation can be a bitch of a precedence
People ask all kinds of questions about the Peace Corps volunteer experience, and it almost always seems that the Peace Corps experience precedes itself in reputation much the same as the military does. In other words: I feel as though the questions and opinions I get from others are primed with preconceived perceptions of what the Peace Corps experience is, and guilt is rarely a part of this. I often work against these perceptions because my experience doesn't closely fit what people think the Peace Corps is - and I suspect this would be the same with most who have served in a long-term volunteer program.

When I talk with RPCVs about this, I often see a pattern much like the comments made after Esther's article: Peace Corps quickly becomes this program that serves a mission, justifies a means to an end, or encapsulates a moment of profound realization or learning. Of course, arguments can be made for all these purposes and they successfully have many times over as this is how the Peace Corps (much like the military) chooses to market itself. But, I don't think volunteer service is the sum of all of its parts.

"What Can I Do?" vs. "What Should I Do?"
It seems to me that guilt, or a sense of moral obligation, or a need to learn about poverty are only the thicker threads in an individual’s complex decision to become a volunteer. Think about it, 
Americans choose to serve their country for all kinds of reasons aside from an act of humanity (and we all are attuned to this). Yet, regardless of all the reasons, we often simplify our answers to others by saying, “Well, I guess I just wanted to do something good” - a bottom line that can be as easily judged as it is praised by those who have never served domestically or overseas. Why do that? Why simplify?

Because trying to explain all of it is exhausting.

I love that people are interested, but sometimes I get tired of spelling out my service to someone who may see it as romantic - even though romanticism is one of the many reasons I joined.  They won't understand or they'll think I'm a cynic, or that I'm jaded, or worse: that I'm self-righteous. It gets confusing so fast and the person asking loses interest so quickly, leaving them with an incomplete representation of nearly everything from the community I served to my feelings for how the world works.

Sometimes I simplify because I feel stuck in that impossible position that Esther describes: 
Either I ignore the hunger of a child, or I create jealousy amongst her peers. And either way she will be hungry again next year after I go back to America. How do I cope with all of this burden? How do any of us cope?
In my two+ years at my site, I felt I only scratched the surface of understanding what it was like to be Guyanese and live in Guyana. So how can I feel anything other than the lose-lose vacuum that Esther describes, or to arrogantly assume I know how to develop these people's lives? So in the words of Rory Stewart, I try to "focus on what we can do, and not what we should do."

The Need for Validation
When I come away from a conversation about “why did I join?”, I regard strong emotions like guilt, frustration, or judgement as an indicator that volunteer service is not as trite as we make it seem when we describe our challenges next to those we are serving. Nor are our emotions trifle simply because we can return to the advanced amenities of the First World. Whether good or bad, validation is one tool we use to process what takes place during our service, and aren't emotions like guilt an unavoidable part of this?  Why disregard them when, as Esther suggests at the end, we can use them to a larger benefit? 

Beyond Benevolence
And so, I often wonder if the Peace Corps experience is as simple as something Americans do to experience the unknown.

What if being a Peace Corps Volunteer is simply an exploration of curiosity because “I've never known what it is like to live there”, and “speak that language”, and “have my world view tested?” Maybe serving overseas is meant to feed a vital curiosity and any act of benevolence is just a likely addition because we feel good when we help others.

It is easy to get caught in some weird finger pointing about who worked the hardest, who lived in the poorest conditions, or who carries the heaviest guilt. I know I've participated in that. But, maybe this isn't what Esther was trying to evoke when she wrote about her experience with guilt. Do we frequently compare ourselves with others who may be doing more? Maybe comparing is innately in our behavior as Humans. Nevertheless, the intense emotions we feel as volunteers are real and valid and worth something more than comparison. 

Devil's Advocate
Is the Peace Corps something sustainable?  What if it isn't?  What if our work is marginally successful, foolhardy in design, and at best laughable to the community we serve? Would that be so bad? Do we really know what our impact will be?  Maybe some RPCVs do, and I envy their resoluteness because I believe people can do small and great things when the circumstances are ripe. However, for the rest of us who have yet to understand the worth of our impact, maybe the Peace Corps at large is not sustainable as an agent of overseas development work.  Maybe that isn't what the Peace Corps is meant to be.  Maybe it is sustainable as something else. 
For example: When Esther writes about the 3rd goal experience, I find it comforting in its simplicity and in its role in a larger-than-us social experience. She brings a powerful and emotional moment forward for me when she says, 
“I have... a real opportunity to help others back home understand the amazing culture of Paraguay, the complicated nature of development work, and the lives of those who fight for their communities.”
To me, Peace Corps has largely, but not entirely, been just that: a social experience that gets me to think, reflect, and continually keep my expectations of the world I live in off to the side, in the peripheral of my immediate view of life. Benevolence is good and healthy, and there’s not much questioning a PCVs interest in that component of service. But good or bad, success or failure, guilt or no guilt, I have to maintain my closest and most reliable connection to my Peace Corps experience: my curiosity. Otherwise my perception of the world and all its ugly parts will atrophy; and who knows, maybe the 3rd goal sustains this. 

Thank you for sharing, Esther!

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