Peace Corps Guilt

Guilt is something I’ve lived with my entire life. As humans I think we are prone to feel guilty/ It’s human nature, my friends. But some people are more susceptible to it – and I am definitely one of them.  I felt guilty when I looked at my Christmas presents early as a child. I felt guilty when I was angry with God that my mom had cancer. I felt guilty when I chose to go to business school instead of medical school and let my father down. But my efforts during my Peace Corps service is NOT something I feel guilty about.

This article talks about the guilt of taking time for ourselves, living above the average, not being sustainable, and failing to save the world. I think these are all the pretty standard Peace Corps guilts. I would bet my entire monthly stipend that most volunteers experience these feelings at some point during their service. I certainly have. But as my service went on, cas ba cas (little by little), I learned to let go of that guilt. And by a little just over the year mark I learned to live guilt-free.

At 14 months into my service…

I don’t feel guilty that I take time to myself. Life vest theory – “Assist yourself before you assist others”. I can be pretty bitchy on my bad days, but I can guarantee you I’d be an even bigger bitch if I didn’t have those small moments every day where I collect my thoughts and process everything.

I don’t feel guilty that I sometimes live about the average. There is a wide range of lifestyles in my town. Some live very simple lives. Some live very wealthy lives. My neighbors and I… I like to think we have pretty comparable living situations. We have the same size rooms, eat the same food, and all squat over the same hole.  They chose to spend their extra cash on satellite TV and I chose to spend mine on a weekend in the city and a new pair of shoes (that rainy season ruined in one week… the TV would have been a better investment). And yes, I could give more to those who don’t have it but is just giving really sustainable?

I don’t feel guilty about not being sustainable. I haven’t actually done a whole lot of work while in Peace Corps. I’ve wanted to; there have just always been barriers – language, time, cultural sensitivity. The little work I have done probably won’t be sustainable though – no teachers will volunteer to run the clubs after I’m gone, no one in the office will bother to do the tasks everyone sweeps under the rug. But I like to believe in the moment the lessons I taught were meaningful. The health club won’t be continued but that 13 year old boy will continue to believe HIV can be eliminated by education, not free handouts of medicine.

And I definitely do not feel guilty for not saving the world. I did not join Peace Corps to save the world. To think you can save the world is in itself a selfish thought. The people of the countries Peace Corps serves do not need to be “saved”. They aren’t broken. They merely need to learn to use their resources. Peace Corp Volunteers move in to a community, observe their needs and assets, address the community, and discuss a feasible community-based solution. We don’t work magic and we aren’t meant to. In my opinion we’re simply meant to instill critical thinking.

The article goes on to talk about the guilt of our lifestyles back home. Compared to the people of my town in Ethiopia I live pretty luxuriously. Compared to the wealthy residents of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city, I live in different conditions but they honestly probably wouldn’t consider it luxurious. I do not feel guilty for my American lifestyle. A universal living standard does not and will not ever exist. Different countries have different resources and present different opportunities for living. In America I wasn’t rich. But by any means I was not poor either  – I always had a meal on the table, a roof over my head, and whether I had to do it by a sickening amount of loans or not – a chance to get an education. I don’t regret any of this because I worked for it. I was lucky enough to be born into a situation that allowed me to climb my way up in life. If I had this opportunity and didn’t appreciate it or had taken advantage of it, I would hope I feel guilty. But I haven’t done wrong; therefore I do not feel guilty for working hard.

And my last thought… I did not join Peace Corps out of guilt. Some people join Peace Corps because they feel the need to give back, and that’s fine. Giving is definitely a reason why I joined Peace Corps but I didn’t feel the need to do it. I joined partly out of my love of helping other people, my curiosity of what the world was like outside of my tiny existence, and to do some self-discovery (some argue this is definitely a selfish reason to join, but that’s a whole other debate). Guilt was never on the list and it never will be. I can say though, after my 27 months in Ethiopia I will definitely go back to my American lifestyle more appreciative. I hope to live a simpler life with more meaning behind my actions. I’ve done good with my life so far, but I can do more.


One thought on “Peace Corps Guilt

  1. I just love all your postings! I too am now at the 14 month mark (and in South Africa) and this is just all so true. I am also trying to give myself enough perks and pleasures since it keeps me going (sustainable) FOR THEM. Agree, agree — it is all choice. And at the end of the day, it will be our relationships that matter most. Keep writing!!! Thanks again!

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