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Posts tagged ‘peace corps realities’

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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Peace Corps realities: that one kid

I  don’t know why the Peace Corps sent me to South Africa or the village I’m living in, but I do think everything happens for a reason. It may take a while, but we usually figure out what that reason is. We find our purpose.

Finding one’s purpose can be a different path for every Peace Corps Volunteer. It can take days, months, years, or that moment may never come. As someone who is so interested in the individual – a person’s history, strengths and weaknesses — it usually just takes that one kid to show me why I’m here and doing what I’m doing. That one kid is that kid who gives you hope. That one kid who amazingly made it through a dysfunctional school system. That one kid who keeps trying and will fight against all odds to learn. That one kid that shows you that not all of your students will be engulfed in a repetitive cycle of poverty. That one kid you know you are going to have an impact on.

A couple of weeks ago, I got a surprise visit from a grade 7 learner at my school. Usually when older learners knock on my door, they want me to help them with homework (and do it for them). This time it was different. A tall boy stood at my doorstep and handed me a notebook. We had never formally met.

“Here, these are my English stories. I want you to read them,” he told me.
“Oh wow!” I exclaimed. “Thanks, I will definitely read them. I’ll give them back to you at school.”

I asked him for his name and off he went. I sat down and read Sebetsang’s stories. All 10 of them. I couldn’t believe what I was reading –a book full of creative stories with dialogues, characters and drama. His stories are almost as if they are a mini-South African soap opera with love, lust and revenge.

English stories

English stories

As I’ve said before, critical thinking isn’t taught here. Creativity is rarely heard of. The fact that a grade 7 boy is able to write his own creative stories is astonishing.

In my journaling efforts with grade 7, I asked them to describe what their homes looked like. Sebetsang wrote a lot, but also discussed the poverty around him and where he lives. It was the first time I had heard an answer from my whole school that was realistic because he clearly observed and inferred from his own experiences.

When I responded to his response, I told him that when I was his age, I loved to write. I would write short stories like he did. I even wrote a book like he has done. With time, I got better at writing. And even though I graduated from university, I still love to write a lot because it calms me down and makes me happy.

One of the reasons why I serve is to help students I work with find their passions (idealistically). I don’t know if I’ve really completed that goal yet, but at least I’ve been able to share my passion with kids. Now that I’ve met this boy, I know we can share a passion together and I can encourage him to hold fast to his dreams like my tattoo says. I realize that if I wasn’t here, he wouldn’t have had anyone to share his stories with or anyone that would take such interest in them.

Now it’s time to figure out how exactly I can work with him. I don’t want to waste his talent. He just came by today with a new batch of stories for me to read. Any suggestions on working with this young writer? Send them on over!

PCVs, never underestimate the impact you are going to have on at least that one kid in your village. It took just that one kid to show me why I’m in my village. I can assure you there is that one kid that will reaffirm why you are here. We may not be able to change the whole system, or influence every kid we come into contact with – but that one kid like Sebetsang is good enough in my books.

Yours in service,

Small heartLiz