It wasn’t until Teri Anderson got to site a couple of weeks ago that I realized how much my enthusiasm has dropped off since my own arrival in Jalpan a year and six months ago. All of us in my group and those who remain from earlier classes know that we’ve traded some of our initial blind excitement for tempered experience. It happens with everything—the end of the honeymoon period with a new girlfriend, the fifth or sixth day visiting your parents as an adult and realizing that somebody’s going to go insane, or the moment when you realized Modern Family wasn’t cute so much as about three abusive couples who hate each other.
Service work is famous for enthusiasm burnout. Animal shelters (and hospitals) call it compassion fatigue, when you’ve seen so much puppy (or human, say) suffering that you just can’t feel bad about it anymore. Ditto for any part of the service field.
Other types of work have tangible incentives—pay and pay raises, promotions, company cars—but service work relies of ‘fulfillment’ to make up for low ages, unlikely advancement and poor working conditions. More, it’s relatively rare that someone gets into service with a specific, achievable, realistic endgame in mind. You manage that aimlessness my setting your own goals, and Peace Corps is great at encouraging that, but the reality of virtually all service work is that you never get to win, never come to the end of it—there will always be more people in bad situations, always be more corporations and governments exploiting their populations, always be more work to do—and it’s hard to deal with that reality year in and year out.
Peace Corps is susceptible to fatigue and cynicism in part because of its open-ended structure. Once you get to site, you’re essentially on your own, and the work of rewarding, incentivizing, goal-setting, and progress-assessing falls to you alone. You hit the ground and you want to take on the world, and you’ve got carte blanche to try—we’re encouraged to think of our work day as twenty four hours long and our weeks as neverending.
But because of your isolation as a volunteer, there’s a tendency to see your service as the only service that could be achieved in your site. To take the obstacles that have stymied you as unassailable and the ones you’ve overcome as cake-walks. It’s a jaded feeling reinforced by the class-like nature of volunteer arrivals. There’s a natural desire to sit down with starry-eyed newcomers to extoll what you’ve done while disabusing them of the notion that anyone could do what you couldn’t.
James and I have been pushing for Ecochavos to be more like Boy Scouts for literally years now, to abandon some of the focus on tedious project completion and to just get the kids outside. We scored a minor victory last Saturday at a meeting with our German backers, securing a tenuous promise to get us thirty kids’ worth of camping equipment.
Teri and I sat down last week to sketch out our dream list of gear, and I found myself having to continually rein her in. She’d mention hiking packs and I counter that the kids had never been camping, let alone backpacking. She’d wax poetic about day hikes with the facilitators and I’d point out that most teachers aren’t from the communities that they teach in, that it’s difficult to get parents to sign off on anything of the nature, and that the educational reforms limit our ability to do anything outside of school during the week. She’d bring up teaching workshops on best practices for human waste disposal on campouts and I’d fire back that it’s a chore to get these kids to spread dirt, let alone to smear their own shit on the sunlit sides of rocks.
My outlook on what I’ll be doing for the next six months is a narrowly circumscribed set of activities, hemmed in on every side by enormous walls of what I’ve come to see as the impossible. The last fourth of my time here has come to be much more about what I can’t do than what I can. And halfway through our talk, I had to shut myself up, because Teri’s got the thing that I lost—the sheer enthusiasm that gives you the ganas and the energy to run full throttle against everything that stopped the last guy in his tracks.
When we get together to talk about how work is going with volunteers in my class, the overriding tones are sarcasm and resignation. We’ll do everything know we can do before we’re done, and we’ll crush it with the weight of our experience. But it’s laughable now to consider doing what we think we can’t.
It’s okay, though, because Peace Corps has made enthusiasm a resource by design. Our two year terms mean that we’re often less trained and less familiar with our locales than would be employees of other development organizations. It also means that every year we’ve got new batches of people fired-up and determined to tackle what’s in front of them.
Were I the ‘Jalpan guy’ of some other organization, right about now I’d be carving out a niche for myself as a fiscal hawk, a voice of reason. I’d be advising my funders to put their money elsewhere, soberly explaining that maybe we could make progress in another year or on another project. Were I that guy, it might be a good long time before somebody took my place and discovered that all the things I’d failed to imagine could be easily achieved.
Peace Corps knows we burn out and it puts an expiration date on us from the first. If we manage to keep the fires stoked for two years, we can extend up to four, and if we make it that long, we can probably find our own way to stay in place and keep doing good work. Ditto staff—there are term limits even for employees, and the organization as a whole thereby has flexibility and the infusion of new blood built into its constitution. We avoid the tunnel vision and founder’s syndrome that plague other development orgs and keep ourselves always ready to change and adapt.
There’s a scene in a book by the late, legendary Terry Pratchett where a king shows our protagonist an axe. It’s ancient (and maybe magic), kept in the family for generations on generations. Sure, the handle had to be replaced, the gems reset, the blade reforged. But it’s the same axe, with the same history and the same power. Peace Corps is like a human body in that every six years or so, all of its cells are replaced. But it’s the same organization with the same focus and the same heroism and the same power.
Because of all the thousands of volunteers like Teri who will swear in this year, it’s the same Peace Corps, and thank God for that.