Wrap-up: Being tough, being good

This is a part of a series of wrap-up posts about my Peace Corps service. In previous posts I have discussed my personal commitment to service, the advantages and pitfalls of the Peace Corps, and issues specific to my sector, country and region of service. You can find the first post, and links to the rest of the series, here.

#

I’ve talked sometimes with Americans and other foreigners not in the Peace Corps — either over the internet, or as they’re passing through my town. People get this degree of shock when I discuss my everyday life: “That sounds so difficult! So foreign! Props to you for sticking with it, I never could.”

On one level, it’s nice to get credit for doing something hard. Mongolian winters are not easy, especially if you have to make fires to keep warm and draw water from a well[1]. But these conversations also make me feel as if somehow, the other person has missed the point.

#

When is the last time you did something altruistic? (This can be as simple as holding a door open, listening to a friend’s troubles, or cooking dinner for your spouse or roommate.) Thinking of the last few occasions, can you name a time you’ve regretted it profoundly? How did these acts make you feel? What resulted from them?

In America we’re accustomed to thinking of acts of generosity as somehow dangerous — as if by giving we must lose something. I disagree with this mindset. The emotional high of altruism, the back-pat we give ourselves when we do something good, and the way it reinforces our identities as “good people” are all motivating, if intangible, rewards. As is seeing tangible results of a good act, even if the subject of the act is unappreciative.

Everyone is capable of altruism, and many people are more inclined to it than they think. It’s true that commitments vary, but that depends in large part on a person’s life circumstances and inherent openness to adventure. Not on inherent altruism or lack thereof.

So when someone pins a PCV’s motivation as “good” or “altruistic” or “a blessing”, when they say “I could never do that!”, they discredit themselves even as they distance themselves from the PCV. They also set aside the complicated motivators both for altruism in general and for joining the Peace Corps (which are often as much about debt, career-building, or adventure as changing the world).

#

It’s necessary for a PCV to tough out adverse circumstances and adapt to the unpredictable. But while toughness is a necessary quality, I wouldn’t call it laudable. A determination to “be strong” in the face of anything can lead to self-destruction as easily as triumph.

When people ask me for advice before joining the Peace Corps, I tell them to figure out their dealbreakers. At what point are they willing to quit? This is not to figure out if they’re “tough” enough for Peace Corps. Rather the opposite — to get them to think about what Peace Corps is worth to them.

The worst way to spend two years is one you’ll look back on in regret. To stay in a stagnant or toxic situation because “you’re strong enough” or “you’ve made a commitment” is a terrible waste of mortal life. Why not move on to somewhere you can both enjoy and value your actions?

I’ve watched people go home in the last two years, some of them close friends. I’ve always empathized with their decision to go. I would never, ever shame someone or look down on them for choosing to end their service early; they have probably faced dilemmas I can’t imagine.

But faced with a good few personal nightmares, I’ve stayed. I wouldn’t attribute it to toughness per se, or even to sunk cost fallacy. If at some point in my service I had felt I was neither contributing to my community nor growing as a person, or if my unhappiness outweighed the pull of that growth, I would have gone home. My usefulness at school and in town has fluctuated, but I’ve never stopped learning. So here I am.

So, applicants and future PCVs alike: What is this experience worth to you?

#

[1] Note that I do neither of these things; I live in a nice new apartment with excellent utilities and very little furniture.