Kurt Vonnegut uses this phrase “so it goes” as a memento mori, a reminder to his readers that death is just a part of life. The closest Peace Corps equivalent is the decision to end your service early – in Peace Corps parlance Early Termination or ET. This is the decision I have come to.
It’s a decision that will come as a surprise to some and as a final resolution to others. It’s an inherently personal decision, especially since my departure does not come on the heals of a medical or security incident. There’s nothing driving me out. Instead, there’s something pulling me home. Peace Corps isn’t for everyone, and in the end it wasn’t for me. I’ve learned a lot; I’ve grown a lot; but finishing another year just no longer seems worthwhile in the cost/benefit analysis of life. And so it goes. We move on.
But before that, I want to reflect on my decision and elucidate some of the reasons behind it. All of these reasons are networked, stacked and intermingled with each other and twenty more besides. I’ve tried to explain this decision to numerous people: friends, family, Peace Corps staff, fellow volunteers, and each time they only get a partial picture – a bit of the whole that fits into their framework, their relationship to me. I’ve done my best to reconstruct these many conversations, to streamline my explanations into easily digestible soundbites. No explanation can encompass the whole truth, but there are themes in its foundation.
The Paralysis of Fear
Anxiety has become a dominant emotion in my recent life. Built in part from the duality of personality and the constant awareness of self, anxiety and uncertainty have infected my daily happiness. Each action comes with the analysis of its many possible outcomes and the ever-present fear of the unknown consequences. Simple things like leaving my house required great internal strength that would drain me of mental and emotional energy. Even opening my door came with a world of possibilities that some days was too overwhelming. This fear, compounded by the self-induced isolation, made personal interactions a seemingly impossible task. I spent many days counting down the minutes until I could return to the solitude of my living room and some days I could not bring myself to leave my house. In this sequestration, I would sit apprehensively waiting for a knock on my door or a call on my phone. Even alone, I was unable to decompress. This constant internal tension compromised my ability to offer my full self to my community.
This anxiety began to leak into the world outside of Peace Corps. What were my future prospects? Would I ever find a job? How had Peace Corps changed my relationships at home? How had it changed me? Constant questions and doubt built in my head about every aspect of life and that led to paralysis. Making decisions, large or inconsequential became more than impossible. It all became hopelessly unhealthy. Something had to give.
The Uncertainty of Self
Doubt, anxiety and uncertainty also turned inward. The time I spent in the United States last month was like a mirror – putting myself back in familiar situations painted a clear picture of the change within me. I did not like what I saw. Negativity, anger, impatience, hopelessness, the many negative things I spent years resolving within myself had been amplified. Somewhere, I lost the sense of playfulness and joy in my life. I stopped seeing the sanguine pieces of myself. My strengths have turned sharp and offensive. In short, I no longer like myself or the person I have become. This realization begs the questions: Who am I? Who do I want to be? Who do I not want to be? Answers that can’t be found in Botswana.
The Tragedy of Wandering
I’m a wanderer, so my sister says. It’s true that I’ve been wandering for most of my adult life. Since turning 18, I’ve spent more time outside of the US than in it. Bouncing from continent to continent, I’ve cultivated a trail of friends and memories. I’ve never stayed in one place long enough to call it home. In this way, I am homeless. There is no place in the world where I belong.
Recently, this has made me feel insubstantial – like a breezing whispering through an open window, refreshing and bewitching but soon forgotten. Connections to friends feel stretched by distance and time. I have made no investment in one place, so no place has invested in me. More than anything now, I want to feel the earth in my blood, feel the pull of a city. I want to create myself as a citizen of something more concrete than “citizen of the world.”
The Love of Country
I have heard many Returned Volunteers evoke the essence of their countries of service through their stories. You can feel the passion and admiration in their voices, deeply touched by an adopted culture. The people they encountered and the experiences they had touched their souls in a way only Peace Corps Service can. During my Service, I did fall in love with a country. That country was not Botswana.
I harbor immense guilt over my ambivalence towards my country of service, but it never inspired me. The connection I sought to a new place and a new culture never materialized. However, for the first time in my life I became genuinely proud to be an American. My time in Botswana gave me a great appreciation for the values and ideals on which the United States was founded. I hunger to understand the US better. I crave to learn more about its history, its people, and its vast diversity. I’ve grown my passion for our democratic system and encouraging the essential participation that fuels it. I want to contribute to the endless desire to make the United States better. I want to live my new understanding of “being American.”
The Reality of Passion
Peace Corps has also shown me the truth of passion. Passion isn’t something to be found. It already exists within ourselves, instead it becomes a matter of accepting it. When I arrived in Botswana I was so sure International Development was my passion. I have studied it; I have worked in it; it was meant to be my career. Turns out I was wrong. Perhaps the reality was too far divorced from my theoretical foundations. Perhaps the work provokes questions I can’t or don’t want to have to answer. Perhaps my passion was not as deep as it needed to be. Whatever the reason, I can clearly see that International Development will not be my life’s work.
I have found other passions during my Service. Blogging, and writing more generally, have given me great pleasure. I enjoy facilitating activities that create great conversations. I rediscovered my love of running (particularly through mud) – even though I haven’t run that much during Service. One of my many challenges is to correlate these passions into a new idea of my life’s work.
The Conflict of Values
I’m pretty good at cognitive dissonance. I can see many sides of arguments and situations, spending time evaluating and appreciating the strengths of each. But, there are some moments when my opinions put me squarely on one side. In this case, I squarely believe in the underlying values of the Peace Corps approach to Development. People-centered, capacity building, sustainability, slow but purposeful: these are all ways to explain how Peace Corps expects to make an impact in the world.
I found the reality to be quite different. Without providing specific examples, I saw the breakdown of these ideals in context. People-centered drifted towards resource-centered. Capacity building withered in unreceptive environs. Purposefulness became overbearing. Sustainable was immediately redefined into something unrecognizable. There were moments when I was taking the job of a Motswana and other moments when I contributed to projects that were seemingly forced upon them. I struggled – how could I do work that I disagreed with on this fundamental ethical level? To this date, I still believe in the values of Peace Corps but I no longer believed in the work I was doing.
My emotional health and ethical qualms only begin to cover the menagerie of reason why I decided to end my service. In some ways, they are all just excuses and justifications. I feel like I need a reason to be leaving. A decision this large requires consideration and pro’s and con’s. Other people expect reasons as well. But really, at the end of it all, it’s my gut telling me it’s time to find a home. So it goes.