I can pick coffee every day for the rest of my life, but I will never know what it’s like to be a coffee picker.
In response to the Huffpost article Peace Corps Guilt
I am not a Peace Corps Volunteer, and probably never will be. I have a personal aversion to participation in “programs” (and rich experiences around varied domestic and international poverty with and without them), and I feel like even for all the good the Peace Corps does, the motivation for too many participants to join is that they want to earn their suffering stripes. Every single PCV has the possibility to utter “this too shall pass” under his/her breath for 2 years and sweat through the tough stuff knowing that they can reintegrate themselves to the comfort of the first world. Not one person they’re “serving” has that same luxury, and that mental security is the only luxury that matters. Not Coca Cola or Lady Gaga.
I’m familiar with the PC policy of the “teach a man to fish” policy of not giving giving giving as the rich American Aunty, and it seems like choosing how strictly to abide by that policy is a decision heavily informed by personality and circumstance of PCV individuals. But the one intangible luxury you always have is that you can be generous. Even guilt is an emotional luxury. If your stomach were cramped with hunger and you were shivering with cold you wouldn’t have the energy to feel guilty.
I understand your hesitation to feed Maria because then what about her friends, family, neighbors, future children when you leave, but you don’t have to change the world. You can make one person less hungry for one day, and that is something. Maybe because you help her make it through this one really tough week she’ll have the endurance for the next tough one, even without you. Sharing is not just tangible; it’s emotional. Sometimes just being on the receiving end and knowing that someone gives a hoot enough to give you something is almost as valuable as the item given.
The worst thing anyone can do is pretend to understand what it’s like to live someone else’s life. Playing along with poverty and forcing yourself to do away with luxuries seems to be exactly the opposite goal of the PC. It seems like it varies site to site, but I thought one of the goals of the program was that all volunteers would actually live the lives others live, rather than living separate but not equal ones like missionaries of not so long ago. I’ve worked in NYC’s urban schools, and the worst thing I can do is pretend to understand what it’s like to be a 15 year old drug addicted gang member and tell a student “I get you.” I need to be very clear that I don’t understand, I never will understand, and that is why I need him/her to teach ME what it’s like to be them. In turn I’ll tell them honestly what it’s like to grow up in a town with both mansions and trailers, go to college, work 2 jobs, and eat mostly vegetarian food. I won’t pretend that I haven’t had it easier than them, and the absence of facade and the presence of a genuinely interested ear are the most meaningful things I’ll ever have to give.
The PC seems like the most invaluable opportunity to, as you said at the end, learn what it’s like for the people you’re working with and then share what you learn. No one’s going to give up his ipod until he has a real human picture of who he’s giving it up for. Since the whole reason I uprooted myself from my first world life was to collect first person accounts with the goal of sharing them, that’s what I’d do with my PC time.
At the end of the day any reason for pulling a drowning girl from a lake that results in that her life being saved seems like reason enough, but somehow jumping in so you can have you picture in the paper for saving her and jumping in because cosmically, morally she shouldn’t die and you should help her live are fundamentally different. Sometimes it’s tricky to tell them apart. Anytime people volunteer because they want to feel good, that’s exactly the moment they should go buy a box of imported chocolates and watch a movie. Volunteering because you want to get something out of it is as selfish as treating your good fortune as a burden. Anytime people volunteer because even though they don’t want to and don’t feel like, but know it’s humanely unjust for members of our human race to be gravely suffering parallel to our comfortable bliss, that’s when they should keep volunteering.