If I wanted to work or teach in a failing education system I could have stayed in my own country. It has enough of its own problems.
If I wanted to self-serve the means of my future career, simply add another line on my resume, I could have declined my assignment and sought out health care experience while I’m still young.
If what I wanted was a free trip around the world I could have chosen something with a little more freedom that didn’t have a 6 p.m. community curfew and vacation rules tracked by the government. Not to mention the tag line that says you work 365 days a year for 2 years as a continual ambassador of the US.
But I didn’t stay in America. I joined the Peace Corps and came to Thailand.
Anyone who ventures out and tries to help change the world, in whatever small way possible, meets their goal with intense resistance.
Saving grace #1:
“Resistance is directly proportional to love. If you’re feeling massive Resistance, the good news is, it means there’s tremendous love there too. If you didn’t love the project that is terrifying you, you wouldn’t feel anything.” — Steven Pressfield
What practical skills or technical experience did I think I was going to take away from this that would serve me and my community mutually well? I can cope. Man, can I cope, and not with Americans’ favorite boys: Jack, Jim, Jose, Johnny or Morgan. The good ol’ captain. They can’t hang out with women in the villages.
I’ve gathered stories like squares of quilt blankets. I’ve taken in faces, their edges, hard and leather-like, beaten from the tropical sun. Sometimes soft and feathered with delicate wrinkles. Laugh lines that lead from one continent of the face to the other.
**There was a man who called himself a teacher, but when his lessons fell upon deaf ears he then called himself a farmer feeling failed by his own passions for language, thirty years in the making. He’d laze about the acres of rice fields in the scorching sun, hot and burning into his hide. What years of disappointment had created, the heat helped dry up like clay, then blow away with a strong, steady gust of wind. At least something in his country was strong and steady.**
Does it help shape me as a compassionate doctor one day? Does it afford me with experience that will skillbuild in a practical way?
It makes me an observer. It forces me to become a lover of language and a trained worker at hearing all the words, especially the ones that aren’t spoken. Silences are where the stories lie. It makes me a better writer. Thankfully, half my love of life lies in words.
Saving Grace #2:
“[L]isten expertly and attentively to extraordinarily complicated narratives—told in words, gestures, silences, tracings, images, [… ] and changes in the body—and to cohere all these stories into something that made provisional sense, enough sense, that is, on which to act.” –Dr. Rita Charon
The lessons plans never written. The co-teaching never taught. The long-lasting materials never created. The books never donated. The letters never drafted. The proposals never glanced at.
But at least I have my stories. And maybe, in the end, these long-lasting fragments of myself at this stage, and the collected quilt squares of others that I stuff in my pocket, are the very stories that are essential for me to understand, empathize, and grow.
Saving grace #3:
“Using narrative knowledge enables a person understand the plight of another by participating in his or her story with complex skills of imagination, interpretation, and recognition. With such knowledge, we enter others’ narrative worlds and accept them—at least provisionally—as true. Our genuine curiosity and commitment toward the truth enable us to peer through the twilight of another’s story as we try to see the whole picture and as we reflect on what it might mean […] Narrative knowledge and practice are what human beings use to communicate to one another about events or states of affairs and are, as such, a major source of both identity and community.” –Dr. Rita Charon
Many volunteers repeat this to themselves in times when we feel we failed our objectives, every last one of them: in Peace Corps you plant seeds that you will never see grow. But one day, when you’re long gone … they will grow.
At least I have my seeds. At least I have my stories.
- Silence Punctured with Diesel Cars and Motorcycles
- A Note on Asking for Help
- Lessons Learned From a Peace Corps Volunteer
- From One Very Honest Volunteer