Being a Peace Corps volunteer requires a willingness to allow someone else, specifically the U.S. federal government, to control some of the most intimate material aspects of your life – your home, your sustenance, your freedom of movement, your professional identity – for duration of your service. The only thing that remains truly and utterly yours is your inner life, your feelings, your insights and the wisdom that arises from how you make meaning of your experiences. And this is where the true power of Peace Corps service emerges. A power that either helps you build new neural networks to increased self-awareness and personal empowerment, or that breaks you and sends you home.
Not everyone stays for their full term of service, and the phrase “leaving for family reasons” seems to be the preferred euphemism when someone terminates early, regardless of whether the individual made the choice or the organization. Even the term early termination itself implies some sort of death to the self, certainly to the self who would have emerged had the individual and the organization both had the strength and commitment to stay the course, no matter what.
Yes, indeed, with one fell swoop of a pen, Peace Corps can terminate your service and send you packing, literally, if you do not abide by its complex and very thorough set of guidelines for personal and professional conduct. The ever-present threat of being ETed (aka “early terminated) is sometimes wielded to encourage compliance with the myriad of regulations and requirements, most of which are detailed in handbooks given to volunteers when they arrive in country, along with a water filter, mosquito net, first aid kit, anti-malarial pills, and bank account where a relatively extravagant living allowance, equal to $142.51 USD per month in Rwanda, is to be deposited monthly.
For those charged with volunteer oversight on behalf of the U.S. government, inappropriate behavior and/or the flouting of regulations, are considered grounds for early termination either because we, as volunteers, are expected to reflect back to both host country nationals and Americans with whom we are in contact in the U.S. all that is good and reasoned about the United States, or because not following rules designed to protect us while abroad can put others, as well as ourselves, at risk. But I think that the truth lies somewhere deeper, in the inner worlds that guide our choices and dictate how our actions are perceived by outsiders.
In the words Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian author, there is danger in the single story. (https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story) America, as any other country, is not just one story, and any attempt to pretend that it is limits our abilities as individuals to understand and celebrate the complexity of our world and its peoples. Each time someone is sent home because they step outside the boundaries of the U.S. story as defined by Peace Corps, every time one errant thread is pulled from the tapestry of our interdependence, there is just a little less diversity in our design, one less color. Each time we as Americans reject one of our own, we are diminished, and people in the host country are denied more access to who America is — its reality, not just its idealization.
I am not saying that people who choose to eschew the values and behaviors that they agreed to uphold when they accepted the invitation to serve in the Peace Corps should not be sent home. I am simply noticing that such governmental “edits” of personnel, hidden from view and never spoken of again, exact a price, to the organization who loses an opportunity to learn something from what might be considered a less than ideal Peace Corps assignment, to the individual, who loses an opportunity to adapt and grow, and, finally, to those in his or her sphere of contact, who miss the chance to recognize that Americans may have more to learn from people in other cultures than they care to admit. In the end, the mad dash to save the story denies everyone the possibility of learning how to appreciate a more diverse collection of stories, about ourselves and the world and, perhaps most importantly in the context of Peace Corps, with its stated goals of cultural learning and teaching, about America herself.
The most striking thing that I have observed in people’s responses in Rwanda to the election of Trump is genuine confusion. How could a country as intelligent and as powerful as the U.S. have elected such a man? Their bewilderment arises from the fact that they have, until now, believed in a single story about what America is. Even those of us who are surprised at his election believed in the same story but, in actuality, if we had all truly understood our own country, its history, if we had truly listened to all of our stories, and not just a select few, we would not have been surprised at the outcome of the last election. It was, in many respects, inevitable.
Volunteering for Peace Corps is, in many ways, a form of seva, a term usually reserved for use in the context of engaging in spiritual practices, that means “selfless service”, i.e. service where we give up selfish concerns to perform some activity for a greater good and with the specific intention of improving our ability to experience our true birthright — the innately compassionate and loving true self that lies buried beneath layers of self-centered superficial concerns and achievements. In the context of Peace Corps, our commitment to accept what we are given is what allows us to write a new story about who we are. Just like our country, we each, as individuals, are not just one thing. Our seva becomes the crucible in which, presumably, a more compassionate and cross-culturally aware self is forged.
Being the citizen of any country, or an employee in any organization, requires trust, trust that the people who are charged with your care are competent and trustworthy, and trust that, even if your keepers are not capable, or reliable, the world will still be there to catch you if you fall. It is this unfettered trust in life itself that emerges when one follows through on commitments no matter what the consequences might be to the self-centered psychic sense of I AM.
The power of seva lies not so much in what you do as in how you do it. I remember once my spiritual teacher, Yogi Amrit Desai, explaining that the path to enlightenment did not depend upon who you chose for a teacher to guide you, that enlightenment is as likely to emerge if you commit yourself to a trash can as to a particular person. What empowers you to be transformed is your unwavering devotion to your chosen person, place, thing, and/or task.
In order to honor our promises, we must patiently and consistently engage in the practice of setting aside personal hopes and dreams, opinions and expectations, in order to stay on our chosen path because the journey will inevitably never unfold as the ego — our self-centered self — wishes. It is in the fire that is produced when we allow our selves to release their need for the world to show up the way they imagine it, instead of how it really is, that the shell of personal desire is burned away, leaving us naked and pure…. finally capable of embracing the stories that we need to own if we are ever to create a truly inclusive international community.
*The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Rwandan government.