Peter’s Reflections

This may have been posted before, I seriously cannot remember. It is an article I wrote for my fellow volunteers a few months back on the topic of maintaining their optimism. I think it should be noted, that writing this helped ME maintain my motivation through to the end. I hope you enjoy.

So here you are. You have made it to the end of the beginning. A long obstacle course of self selection, medical exams and forms, loan deferments, next of kin notifications, bank statements and so on. What have you gotten yourself into? Well, now that it is too late to turn back, I will tell you. If you are here chances are you are a bleeding heart liberal-do-gooder that like a superhero wants to make the world a better place. Now you can point a finger at Ghandi (Be the change you want to see in the world), JFK (Ask not what your country blah blah blah), or even Obama’s Hopey-Changey thing (Yes We Can); but those were just inspirations. Somewhere inside you, you committed to this service with the loftiest of goals and expectations. How can we protect and defend this waif of a feeling that got you into this in the first place? How can we sustain our original optimism in the trenches of PC service?

Before getting on the plane we all had a very general picture of what our service would be like. My picture had rainbows and carebears and conversations of deep political, social and philosophical importance. That’s me. Jen Green I imagine had a picture of zombie slaying, french toast making and creative writing workshops. As Tom Petty says, ‘the future is wide open’- its very common to have hopes of a general nature about your service. Then you get to site, and all the myriad possibilities coalesce into concrete specifics. Before we had theoretical knowledge of Peace Corps service. And now slowly that theoretical knowledge shifts into empirical knowledge. This can be a fascinating time of wondrous discovery- but most experience it as some kind of disappointment. You may look back at your original idea of service and think it was the work of a naive and misguided mind. There is truth in that- but don’t disparage it. Everyone gets a reality check in the first few months. Because we were so filled with optimism and a personal dream in deciding to come- pessimism can be a real threat to our service. So let’s talk about optimism and pessimism and realist viewpoints. I think these ideas get tossed around and many people have strange ideas about them.

What is optimism? Merely a hope for the future. If you have optimism about your service in the PC then you believe your service can make a difference. It is a positive attitude about the future. But it is by nature abstract and undetermined. Once specifics start becoming a part of your hopes for the future- they become expectations. And this is natural and normal- in all cases in all times, we move from abstract and general ideas of the future to actual events of the present, and then on to mere images of the past that we recall and reflect on to inform likely outcomes for our future endeavors.

What is realism? Realism or pragmatism is the view of things as they are now, informed with wisdom of what has worked or failed to work in the past. This view seeks to limit as much as possible the wasted effort between past mistakes or inefficiencies and what we hope to achieve in the future. And this is good. This is the principle of induction. Past outcomes should help us make good decisions in planning and preparation for striving for our hopes and dreams. This is how we learn- we test, evaluate and revise and try again.

Often when people disagree, they are merely not understanding the others views. Pragmatic views are important for deciding how to go about doing something; what to change to try something bakegan. They can also help us see if our goals can be achieved within a certain timeframe. Here is a spoiler for you. Your goals, your hopes will not be visible in the way you want them to be, before you go home (caveat- unless you pull a Matt Hardwick or Sarah Lightner).

And so disappointment is natural; Because we are used, oh so used to seeing the impact of our work. Accept and remember this, it will save you headaches. You may want to say- “But I can see raintanks and toilets!” or “I can see a library or dispensary etc..” You would be wise not to pin your aspirations on a project that may not finish or come to fruition before you leave. And this is NOT A FAILURE. If your project is completed, great! But our primary task should be sustainable development. So while you can see and (eww) touch a toilet, it is not sustainable. A community that knows how to organize, plan, fundraise and build its own resources however- THAT is sustainable. This is near impossible to see while you are at site, and even harder after you leave.

What is pessimism? The absence or privation of hope. It is an attitude brought about from disappointment, from expectations that were not met, from a lack of beer, ice cream, cheese and other delicious necessities- this pain is real, but it should not inform our outlook on the future. As an attitude, it leads to self-fulfilling prophecies and thoughts. This is depression. You cannot reason yourself out of despair- other than to realize it is not useful, not pragmatic. So, adjust your expectations, maintain your hopes and good attitude, reflect and adjust your actions with realistic and practical experience.

I want to try and share a point that Nietzsche tried to make. He was a great student of the Greek classics, especially the tragedies. Which is strange because most people find tragic stories depressing and hardly helpful. But, Nietzsche points out that life is full of disappointments and suffering; it is also full of joy and pleasure, but never just the one. He thought that the lesson the Greeks could teach us, was that we should try and harness our suffering and make something beautiful out of it. It may be that all volunteers suffer for the extent of their service; but even if we do, we are still making a beautiful project out of it. Reaching out to our fellow human beings, strangers and trying to help them often in ways they cannot understand- this could be the definition of a meaningful life.

You will feel frustrated, isolated, lonely, depressed, ineffective. Ignore it. The big picture isn’t about our feelings, our viewpoint. The feelings will become manageable and pass, if you focus on the goal- the gift of your knowledge and labor and the sharing of our culture. Persevere towards your goal with the right attitude- and that stret attitude is optimistic. We are moving a sand beach one grain of sand at a time.

They tell us in PST-lower you expectations. Don’t. Lower your expectations of seeing the change you want to make. We are rolling snowballs down mountains. We are a swarm of butterflies on the far side of the world. Have faith in the value of your work. Have faith in the community of humanity. People can let you down, especially if you have unrealistic expectations of them. Instead, attach yourself to effort and your service. That is the sacrifice you must make to survive your service.

You are part of a grand adventure. Peace Corps is a team working towards reducing the amount of global life suck, and increasing the amount of human awesomenicity. Adventures are never predictable. This is the sport of the long shot, the long game. Ours is the work of an Epic- a story of heroic deeds long in the telling; Dragon-sized mosquitoes slain, the Sith Lords of illiteracy and unhygienic practices defeated and sent running, of magical swords of empowerment and education being pulled from the stone anvil, the bad behaviors of domestic abuse and corporal punishment being tossed into the volcano of Mount Doom.

Since I opened with the inspiring quotes that helped motivate us to come, I thought I would finish with two quotes that can help us finish.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible  summer.” –Albert Camus

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