Saturday, May 30, 2009

Why?

"...when the horizon swims blue, green, emotional--then Mrs. Jarvis, heaving a sigh, thinks to herself, 'If only some one could give me ... if I could give some one....' But she does not know what she wants to give, nor who could give it her." [V. Woolf, Jacob's Room]

The first time that I can remember attempting to answer the question of why I wanted to join the Peace Corps was during the spring semester of my freshman year of college. In the volley of aspirations, ideals, fears, and beliefs over dinner with several of my closest friends one evening, I ventured that I might join the Peace Corps after graduation. At the time, graduation was just as unimaginable as any of our post-college plans, and we were told repeatedly by Adults that there was truly no need to be thinking about such things so early into our college careers; nonetheless, post-college plans seemed a prevalent topic of conversation that Spring. While my plan to go into the Peace Corps didn't seem to me more unreasonable than anybody else's plan, my desire (or quite probably the way I expressed that desire) nevertheless evoked the ire of several of my friends, and in the ensuing debate over the merits of such a plan, the phrase, "waste of a Yale education," was lobbed in my direction. Boom.

Whether it is because I am stubborn or determined or for some other reason, I don't like being told what is "right" or "best" for me to do with my education, my time, or my life. I very much appreciate guidance, suggestion, and sincere debate about these matters, and I spend a lot of time arguing with myself about the ethical and moral implications of my actions, but something goes off when someone matter-of-factly asserts the merits of my decisions.

Over the course of the following three years, I was blessed with many friends who were just as uncertain as I was about the underlying reasons for, moral and ethical merits of, and possible effects on others that their post-college plans might engender. For a group of young people often described as "Generation Me" or the "iGeneration," I have witnessed among my peers an almost pandemic-concern with doing something for the "greater good," and a palpable fear of encroaching on others' rights to enjoy an autonomous and happy life. I guess I would conjecture that maybe one reason we are sometimes seen as selfish is because we are constantly wanting more than what we have (please don't shoot me, Captain Obvious). As patriotism has soared over the United States of America for the past few war-torn years, pride and skepticism have been strange bedfellows (nestfellows?), with many skeptical young people in this country trying to reconcile the desire to be proud of who they are, which despite our many faces includes an American identity, with the understanding that there are many people around the world who look at us, at best, disparagingly. So the question has become, "How can I strive to be happy and get what I want out of life, while at the same time ensuring that others have exactly the same possibility?"

Fast-forward three years. College drawing-to-a-close, senior essay being written, life decisions being made, doubts hovering over all. Do I still want to do the Peace Corps? Yes. Why?

Because my first memory of trying to answer this question doesn't include a memory of giving a satisfactory or reasoned response, but instead centers on hurt feelings and bruised egos, I've spent a lot of time pondering whether my continued desire to do this is mainly in reaction to that conversation once-upon a freshman year. Am I really just a stubborn, selfish person whose behaviors can mostly be explained away as a desire to prove other people wrong? While I have a tendency to self-doubt, I finally decided that this is not the case. While I don't deny my sometimes stubborn tendencies, I firmly believe that my primary reasons for wanting to do this are selfless, even if many secondary and tertiary reasons for so wanting seem to have strong whiffs of Me. Even these, however, are not necessarily bad reasons: wanting to grow, wanting to see a bit more of what the world has to offer, wanting to gain experience, wanting to test oneself are not necessarily bad things, even if they can sometimes have deleterious consequences for others if one is not careful and aware of the ways in which his personal expansion is affecting others.

Now, does a selfless desire to help others really justify me inserting myself into other people's lives? Unfortunately, human history provides countless case studies of people showing up in a new place and saying, "I come with good intentions." Despite the fact that many of these people have shown up with intentions that they sincerely believed were good, countless among them were nevertheless misguided, or naive, or unprepared in ways which had disastrous implications for the well-being, culture, and stability of the people upon whom they impose themselves. So, good intentions notwithstanding, should I be doing this?

My final decision that, yes, I should be doing this, hinges on the fact that the Peace Corps only goes places where their aid and services are requested. They only send volunteers to countries that have asked for their assistance, and to communities where they are welcomed. If someone extends his or her hand and says, "Please help," then I feel justified in extending my hand in reply and saying, "I will do my best, though that may not be enough."

So here I am, 23-years-old, with a college degree, a year of post-college work experience, and, thankfully, people whom I believe in who I think believe in me, waiting to depart for the Peace Corps in 10 days, where I will serve in Burkina Faso, attempting to help increase enrollment, retention, and success rates for girls in rural primary schools. Whether or not my efforts will affect any long-term, positive changes in the communities with which I'll be working obviously remains to be seen, but I can only hope that to somebody other than myself, these 27 months will be valuable. Though I have yet to figure out what it is I truly want, or can give this world, and whether there is anything more to receive than the momentary experience of existence, I am for better or worse burdened with the inability to stop wondering: "What [is] shaped by the arms and bodies moving in the twilight room?" (Jacob's Room)

3 comments:

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  2. Best of luck Charley. This promises to be a great experience both for you and for the communities you will be serving. I'll be watching...

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  3. Dude, you rock! I can't wait to hear about what you're doing--I'll definitely be keeping up with your doings and musings. Miss you, buddy!

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