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.