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Peace Corps realities: empathy and apathy

Some days I drag my feet home brushing through the tall grass with my head down, feeling numb and like a robot. Other days, I come home and cry or feel like crying of frustration and anger and thus face plant onto my bed for a good hour or two. And, some other days, I feel like I’m living on Peace Corps cloud nine – that feeling like your heart is lifted into your throat and you’re hyped on caffeine. I want to cry, but in a good way because that day, I have been reminded once again why I serve.


Typical afternoon face plant

The Peace Corps emotional roller coaster is no exaggeration. The drastic ups and downs are ever-changing and will surprise you when you least expect a particular feeling to possess your body. I can go from feeling pain and empathy to feeling nothing in a minute. I can switch roles of being a walking zombie or a social justice fighter whenever I want by mentally telling myself, “Alright, just stop thinking about it. Let’s be realistic, Liz” or having just one kid or educator say something that makes it all worth it.

That’s because I’ve taught myself to think like this. And it hasn’t been easy – I struggled through City Year to figure out how to balance my feelings and my work from the beginning. Service is definitely a combination of both, but depending on the situation one will preside over the other.

Peace Corps has an extremely romanticized image in our communities and back in the States. People in our villages see us as someone who knows everything and can do anything, when we aren’t miracle workers. People in the States see PCVs as these moral, caring, and martyrs who will do anything to change the status quo and will fight for the children we work with, which is how most of us present ourselves (including this girl) on our social media and blogs. Well duh, we all embrace some of that mushy empathy or else we wouldn’t be serving. But to get through these two years of service, we can’t uphold that image all the time. Sometimes we need to be apathetic to survive.

That means we if have a bad day, it doesn’t affect us because that day we chose to be apathetic. At that given moment we don’t care – we just think it’s the same thing, different day. If a student hands me a paper with all the answers in incomprehensible English, oh well. If half the class won’t even try to listen to you teach, then so be it. If class is canceled for a staff meeting or some other nonsense, well, damnit.

It’s okay to be apathetic at times. It’s okay to admit it, and actually, it’s a good thing. A Peace Corps Volunteer must learn how to walk the line between empathy and apathy. In this case, opposites attract.

If I was empathetic about every situation I faced in the field, I would be depressed a good amount of the time. I would likely self-destruct –- boom — this is a two year commitment, after all. And sometimes those Peace Corps highs don’t kick in when ya need them to, so who wants to dwell? If you can’t feel happy, and you know feeling pain will only make it worse, why not shut off your emotions for a little? Stop thinking. Stop caring for a little. Still do the work you’re supposed to do, but without all the extra emotional baggage.

That doesn’t mean you don’t care about your service and it doesn’t make you a bad Volunteer. It just makes you realistic because we can’t save every kid or drastically change how our schools operate. It’s a blessing already that we get to have this two year experience, even with the struggles.

During those times when you’re feeling empathetic, embrace it. Cry when you have to – whether that is of frustration or heartache. Punch the air when you have to. Think about how much stronger of a person you will be in two years after you get through this. Instead of complaining, think about the small victories from the day or week.

Remember why you joined the Peace Corps. If there wasn’t a conflict, why would we be here?

PCVs, pick your battles wisely, but most importantly, remember that opposites attract. If we’re too empathetic, we’ll rip our hearts out. If we’re too apathetic, we shouldn’t be here. If we’re a mix of the both, we’re smart and will prosper.

Yours in service,
Small heartLiz

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One Comment Post a comment
  1. Breton #

    I enjoyed reading it, made me think of how things really are…. Apathetic.

    July 7, 2013

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