So much of Peace Corps is about learning. Offering a volunteer’s skills for a community or organization to learn, or integrating into a community to learn the language, the culture, and your role as a new member of that community. Everything becomes an opportunity to learn – getting lost enough times to find your way around a new city, wandering in the market trying to finally buy hangers for your new apartment, learning how to make tomato soup from scratch because you are cold and homesick and nothing sounds better than warm, melty grilled cheese dipped in tomato soup as Autumn descends around you. It’s all a matter of perspective.
Sometimes, a lot of times, Peace Corps moments pass with nothing gained but frustration. Trying for fifteen minutes to explain something in broken Russian, only for it to be repeated back to you – exactly as you said it. Getting shuffled out of a scheduled meeting because there aren’t enough free chairs or clean teacups for you to join in.
How do you turn these moments of frustration into positive learning experiences? (Spoiler alert – it’s not always possible. Frustrations are constant and unavoidable, regardless of where on Earth you live or what type of work you do. Recognizing that is a learning moment in itself.)
Which brings me to the shutdown, which I have already written about here and here. I am relieved that it is over. Like many people, I am frustrated that it even happened. That instead of a necessary and solutions-based dialogue on how we provide for our citizens and ensure our country’s economic future, we have a few more months before this happens again in January. This consistent avoidance of responsibility of elected officials is investing in uncertainty instead of building a long-term, sustainable plan outlined in their basic job description. That a narrowly-interpreted parliamentary procedure can disrupt millions of lives, expose a growing rift in American political life, and yet gain absolutely nothing – that is frustrating.
So I can either permit it to keep frustrating me, or I can learn from it. But what does a Peace Corps Volunteer learn from sixteen days of shuttered government? This:
Actively participate in your own experience. Politics are bigger than the ballot box. Voting is important. Voting is your voice in our system, and there is no such thing as not voting, but politics continues past that beautiful month of November when election season hits. When people stop participating, ignore context and history, stop paying attention to the changing of the rules, and stop talking about the issues that are important to them, the system breaks down. Our public education system was built specifically to produce civically engaged citizens who were empowered to direct the policies and leaders of our country. Knowledge is power, and if you fail to take the lead in your own interests, no one else will do that for you. The same is true here – the Peace Corps experience is what you make it. You are responsible for building your legacy here, and you can’t take a passive role in that. You have to be intentional about it.
“We become what we habitually contemplate.” So says George Russell, but I would argue that how we contemplate things is equally as important. How we talk about our work, our community, and our role help to define the way we inhabit each. The words we use to describe something impact the way we think about it. That is as true for American politics as it is for investing in organizational or community development, and it is a valuable lesson for me as a volunteer. Changing the nature of the conversation or the phrasing of an idea can drastically change the result. Words have the power to create a community out of a disparate group of individuals or empower individuals or understand needs and deficits as potential and opportunity. Thinking critically about the impact we want to make, the type of volunteer you want to be, and the work you are doing every day will contribute to the impact you will make, the type of volunteer you will be, and the work that defines your service.
Challenging conversations are necessary. Being able to talk about what you believe in – even when challenged, especially when challenged – strengthens your understanding of your own beliefs. You can’t insulate yourself from opinions that are different than your own, you need to engage with others, learn from others. Just being willing to have the conversation opens up so many new opportunities. (It gave me the chance to talk to other volunteers around the world!) And a conversation isn’t about one person talking, its about equal contributions, about engaging, about respect, about listening. Which brings me to my next point.
Listen to the people you are there to serve. They are the reason you are here. This is not about you, your ego, or your past achievements. Humility, honesty, and hard work are the strongest tools you have to build trust in your community. (Dear members of Congress, I cannot stress this lesson enough.)
Ask questions. Why is a powerful question that can lead to meaningful conversations, and its probably the Russian word that I use most. (That and извините – izvineete – which means “I’m sorry.”) As in, “Why are things the way they are?” or “Why is this something you feel strongly about?” But questions for yourself like, “What am I doing here? How am I contributing to my goals? Am I working towards my own definition of success, or am I letting others define that for me? What’s next?” are also incredibly valuable as a volunteer.
Know what you want out of something before you dive into it head first. “…[having] to get something out of this” isn’t a good enough reason to put all your efforts into it. A vision and the goals that will guide you toward that vision are the first steps of any project.
Humanity has a great propensity for failure. Failure is inevitable, but learning from that failure is not. Humanity also has a great propensity for choice – in how we define ourselves, in how we learn from the countless mistakes we make on the way. We can let our experience be defined by failure, or by the potential to grow from it.
Learn from everything.