Telling My Peace Corps Story, Part 3 of 3

How I’ve changed:

It’s hard to tell how I’ve changed, mostly because I’ve been around myself continually through it all. It’s hard to sense the differences when they happen so slowly. One exception is that I look older than I did two years ago. It’s an obvious point, but it’s one of the most apparent to me because for most of the last two years I’ve been without mirrors, so catching a glimpse of myself is still a bit surprising. I don’t feel I’ve changed fundamentally on the inside, though. I think I left the U.S. with a lot of burning questions about my place in the world and my global responsibility to others and I’ve come back with a calmer and less grandiose sense of my responsibility to others. That probably sounds a bit counter-intuitive; “you mean you went into the Peace Corps and now you care less about other people?” No, not care less, but I feel less pressure to dedicate myself to trying to right all the wrongs that I feel are in the world. I’ve been extremely lucky in my life to have been born where, when, and to whom I was, but that doesn’t mean I need to sacrifice my advantages out of a sense of guilt or responsibility to a global fairness. Before the Peace Corps I wondered if I shouldn’t give up all of the privileges I had received out of a sense of solidarity or at least use them up in order to pass on those privileges to others. I still have a deep desire to contribute to the well-being of others, but not from a sense of guilt. Also, I have very few illusions about anyone’s ability to fix the problems that they see in others’ lives (I’ll elaborate on this point below).

Another difference I detect is that I’ve calmed down from the quasi obsessive/compulsive organizational and logistical stress that drove me to organize my life in to-do lists and schedules and to feel dissonance when I was unable to stick to them. I still use lists to organize my thoughts and plans, but I’ve been able to let go of much of the stress that comes from unanticipated changes in plans. In Nicaragua it’s futile to make formal and specific plans because the institutional environment is less predictable and formalized. This is frustrating for most of us ‘gringos’ at first, but eventually most of us adapt and go with the flow. The lack of bus schedules and online information has turned us into people who just get on a bus and figure out what the next step is on the way. It feels good to not be stressed out all the time. I’m sure I’ll lose a bit of the edge that tends to make people in the U.S. so driven, but I’m not convinced that it’s worth the neuroses that develop because of that attitude towards work and time.

I’ve come to appreciate much more the value of relationships, especially family and community relationships. The smaller communities in Nicaragua that I came to know have shown me what it means to welcome others into one’s home and be generous and supportive both when times are good and when times are bad. In the U.S. we have a much more individualist, every-man-for-himself kind of culture that promotes efficiency and isolation. It has pros and cons. I’m more aware of both now and want to work to actively engage with my community, neighbors, family, and friends.

I now also value simplicity and a relationship with nature in new and different ways. Living surrounded by palm and banana trees, seeing pigs and chickens in nearly everyone’s yards, hearing howler monkeys in the distance, and seeing people herding cows and riding horses through the town every day struck me as a valuable way to live life. It has its downsides in the form of insects, feces, increased disease, discomfort, and inconvenience, but the ‘hygienic’ alternative that we have cultivated in the U.S. of factory farming, suburbs, climate control, and manicured lawns has divorced us from important reminders that we are not fundamentally separate from nature, though we often strive to distance ourselves from the discomforts that nature brings.

Finally, I have learned to value material simplicity more than I had before. I now know firsthand how little having material possessions can be counted on to produce happiness and contentedness. It is very nice to have comfortable and nice things, but the idea that having more things is better has not only failed to convince me, but has even started to feel cluttered and overbearing. That’s not to say that I don’t value looking presentable or professional, however. Nicaraguans demonstrate an interesting contrast between their material poverty and their meticulous personal hygiene. You will not see whiter shirts than in Nicaragua, which is doubly amazing when you consider the dirt, mud, and lack of machine washers. You will rarely see a male adult in anything less dressy than a collared polo, and women almost never leave the house without some kind of heel and trendy belt. I have often been asked, quite seriously, why it is that foreigners are so dirty and smelly. I try to explain that most foreigners aren’t quite as disheveled as the average hippy backpacker, but still there’s something to the difference between our casual and utilitarian tendencies and their more formal style. At first it seemed like Nicaraguan vanity to me, but the desire to look and feel good while not getting caught up on having lots of material possessions now strikes me as very sensible.

What I’ve learned:

I suppose that the ways in which I’ve changed in the Peace Corps already say a lot about what I think I’ve learned, but I want to elaborate on some of my more specific beliefs that have changed. I couldn’t possibly list of all the things I’ve learned about English education, Nicaraguan culture, the Spanish language, and the new ideas I’ve come across in my personal reading, but in terms of big ideas perhaps the most important thing that I’ve learned is how to think about poverty in a developing country like Nicaragua. It is probably impossible to explain or understand the entirety of what that poverty means without living in it, but that’s not because people who live in the U.S. and other developed countries are too spoiled or ignorant. It’s simply because what we think of as poverty cannot be encompassed by statistics about income or wealth. Instead, it is made up of the hundreds of little details that depend on the situation. Paradoxically, I feel like what I now understand about poverty is that it’s not a ‘thing’ that can be understood in terms of categories that apply broadly. It’s not one state or kind of existence and it’s not simply suffering. It’s complex and unique to each context. I think it’s easy for many in developed countries to generalize and simplify the idea of global poverty and working to improve the lives of the disadvantaged. I am much more skeptical of that instinct and the ways in which we tend to go about it. I’ll explain why what I’ve learned has led me to this skepticism and where that leaves me.

First, the reason that I think I’ve learned important things about poverty is not because I’ve gotten closer to defining what it is specifically. Instead, I’ve been able to shatter the simple definition into little truths and misconceptions. I’ve learned that our everyday conception of poverty is oversimplified, often mistaken, and subtly judgmental. Most of the poor people that I met don’t match the image we have in our head of shivering, starving people living in dirt-floored shacks. Poverty doesn’t mean suffering, injustice, failing, nor even ‘need’ in its common definition. Poverty isn’t necessarily a problem that needs to be fixed, in the way we tend to think of it. I would define poverty as simply having material possessions that are below a relatively arbitrary set of international standard.

Here’s an example: imagine a family that lives on two dollars per day of income. Probably you can barely imagine someone taking care of a dog on that amount. But often the reality is that the husband and one son work on the farm during the day while the mom and daughter clean, cook, and take care of the animals at home. Maybe another son has a part-time job as a security guard at a local hotel. He makes the $2/day, but that just goes to cover buying specialty foods, clothes, and school supplies. The family eats the chickens, pigs, and ducks that they raise in the backyard, they have several different fruit trees on their land, and have more than enough rice, beans, and plantains from their farm to feed themselves. They don’t eat much meat and their meals can get kind of bland, but nobody goes hungry. Basic healthcare is provided by the state. It’s not very good quality, but there are lots of pharmacies, nurses, and other men and women in town who have been treating illnesses by traditional means for decades. The children go to school and play with their neighbors and other family members nearly every day. Sometimes they work hard in the fields or hand-washing clothes, but working hard does not often make one unhappy. In fact, I’m sure that all of you reading have had the experience of doing a hard manual-labor task and feeling incredibly satisfied afterward. They spend a great amount of time visiting neighbors, shopkeepers, and extended family. They take care of each others’ children. Another important note: this family has no mortgage payments, no car payments, nor a sizable debt burden of any kind. Sometimes to purchase a TV or refrigerator they have to take out a small loan, but nothing comparable to the debt levels of most industrialized countries. So how much does that description match the idea you had of almost unimaginably ‘poor’ people? We tend to imagine that material poverty indicates suffering and unhappiness when the reality is that they are only indirectly related. If someone is suffering, then they are suffering, but if they are poor they may not be suffering and they may not need our help.

Now that I’ve tried to challenge the cultural assumptions that we tend to make about global poverty, I want to make sure that I don’t fall into the opposite trap of idealizing a simpler and more ‘primitive’ life and condition. Just because some poor people aren’t actively and acutely suffering from a lack of material possessions does not mean that they’re satisfied with their condition, nor that their lives can’t be improved, nor that there aren’t many poor people who are suffering terribly. First of all, being materially poor leaves a family much more vulnerable to shocks like a family illness, a bad crop, or extreme weather. It’s less comfortable to be subjected to the elements, pests and parasites, and the vicissitudes of fate. Everyone, not just poor people, wants more security, more control over their lives and a better standard of living. People with few material possessions still want fancy phones and computers, brand-name clothes, and cars. It’s just that few of their neighbors have them, so there isn’t this drive to out-consume others that pushes us to have the newest things. Also, there are far fewer sources of credit that allow people to mortgage their future incomes for present consumption. Poor people are not more happy than rich people. They’re just not much less happy either, unless they’re made to feel poor and inferior, which is exactly what our conception of poor people tends to make them feel. They have serious disadvantages in many areas of their lives, but they also have advantages that we often lose sight of, like tight-knit families and communities that support one another during times of tragedy or struggle. They focus on relationships rather than possessions, which is a beautiful thing. They are much less ‘productive’ than the average U.S. citizen, but since when did producing more make you more happy? I find that spending more time with people that I love and doing what I enjoy is far more satisfying than owning more things, and learning from Nicaraguans about how they find happiness without many material possessions has been extremely eye-opening. Even the way that we talk about ‘them’ as if they’re somehow different from ‘us’ is an artificial way of thinking about poverty. People are people. Some have less stuff than others, and we tend to lump them into a category called ‘poor people,’ but having less stuff can’t tell us many meaningful things about a person. I think it’s better to try to challenge the assumptions that we have and approach each person and situation with an open mind, free of as many biases and judgments as possible.

There are plenty of needs in the developing world, and many injustices. Why do I deserve to be born into the lap of luxury and comfort while others are born into an environment where they have to struggle and work to survive? The answer that I’ve come up with (for now) is that I don’t deserve it, but that’s the way it is. It’s not my fault and I’m not responsible for ‘righting’ the injustice. I’m just responsible for living a good life, which for me includes working to make the lives of others better in addition to my own. I’m not convinced that the way to make others’ lives better are through giving them more stuff, necessarily. The best way to improves the lives of the needy are to learn from them and work with them to fill those needs, whether they be material or not. There is no one answer nor one way to improve the world. Nor does everyone need to look beyond the U.S.’s borders to improve the world. I think that if you feel a desire and interest in learning and helping abroad, that you should pursue it, while if you feel more desire to focus on building relationships and supporting people locally, you should pursue that.

Poverty is not a simple thing. It has benefits as well as downsides. Overall it is better to be less poor than more poor, but the details that fall outside of the measures of material poverty are much more consequential for living a good life than those inside it.

Finally, I want to note that I have no illusions about ‘figuring out’ poverty as a whole. I have only had a glimpse for a couple of years at a particular kind of poverty. I have no experience with the kind of desperate, urban poverty that affects millions of people in other countries. I can only speak to my own very specific, imperfect, and subjective experiences. I will try to remain as open as possible to new experiences and understandings of the world we share, even as they contradict what I feel I’ve learned so far.

What I’ve accomplished:

This is a tricky thing to define. In my previous post I listed the specific things that I ‘did’ in the Peace Corps, but in terms of general things that I feel I’ve accomplished, I think there are only a few:

I have improved myself by having new, unconventional, and challenging experiences that have broadened and opened my mind permanently.

I have given my time and expertise to those people who wanted to learn some of the things that I had learned, specifically relating to English language and teaching strategies but also many other topics that they wanted to explore but didn’t have the resources to pursue.

I have made lasting friendships with fellow volunteers and especially with the people in the communities where I lived and worked in Nicaragua. Through these relationships I have enriched my own life and the lives of others and contributed to better cultural understanding between the U.S. and Nicaragua. Nicaraguans who have known me mostly have a more positive and personal connection to our country and I hope that, through me, the readers of this blog and people I meet will have a more positive and personal connection to Nicaragua.

What it means:

I think that the time I spent in the Peace Corps has meant that the world is a slightly, subtly better place, but it’s through slight, subtle, individual changes that anything is improved at all. I’m just happy to have shared and learned as much as I have.

Me ringing the bell in the Peace Corps office in Managua to mark the end of my Peace Corps service on November 15th.

Me ringing the bell in the Peace Corps office in Managua to mark the end of my Peace Corps service on November 15th.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Kathy H on December 10, 2012 at 11:47 am

    Thank you for the great gift of sharing your experiences and insights with us! I can’t wait to follow your life journey.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Elaine Stecker-Kochanski on December 11, 2012 at 9:03 am

    Beautifully written. Thank you

    Reply

  3. Posted by Richard Scholtz on April 13, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. Very insightful, well written and inspirational! I’d like it to reach millions! I’m glad you added the following qualifier: “…..I have only had a glimpse for a couple of years at a particular kind of poverty. I have no experience with the kind of desperate, urban poverty that affects millions of people in other countries…..” Yes, there ARE other faces of grinding poverty; from a parent of a co-worker.

    Reply

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