Sunday, January 23, 2011

Seven Years Of...

“Break your mirrors!  Yes, indeed — shatter the glass.  In our society that is so self-absorbed, begin to look less at yourself and more at each other. Learn more about the face of your neighbor, and less about your own.

...You’ll get more happiness and contentment out of counting your friends than counting your dollars.  You’ll get more satisfaction from having improved your neighborhood, your town, your state, your country and your fellow human beings than you’ll ever get from your muscles, your figure, your automobile, your house, or your credit ratings.

You’ll get more from being a peacemaker than a warrior...Break the mirrors!

Be peacemakers of the community, and you and your family will be happy.”

– Sargent Shriver, 1915-2011

Sargent Shriver was a career public servant and American politician who was appointed by his brother-in-law and then-President John F. Kennedy to, "Let the word go forth that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans:..To those peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves…”

By August of the same year, 1961, Shriver had started the Peace Corps program and shipped off the first group of volunteers to Ghana.

I imagine that, true to the spirit of Peace Corps then and now, there was plenty of well-intentioned bumbling and headless chicken flapping accompanying this noble step towards greater international goodwill and cross-cultural understanding. The program has worked out a lot of kinks and paternalistic undertones since the early days, like no longer sending new trainees to the ghettos of DC to expose them to "African culture," but Peace Corps has also in many ways evolved into yet another grinding government bureaucracy. There are deep inefficiencies and heartbreakingly missed opportunities. But while it has major problems as a development agency, Peace Corps stands alone as the only program that gives Americans a chance to break our mirrors.

Peace Corps' first goal is to provide technical development assistance to developing countries who ask for it, and like most NGOs and development agencies, it does a mediocre job at best. We'll not get into that for now. It is far better at its second and third goals: to share American culture with the people of host countries around the world, and to share host country cultures with the people of America. I think those are reasons enough for its existence. (And for more funding. Ahem, Congress. How about some good news for us in March?)

An obituary in the New York Times about Sargent Shriver's passing last week is what sent me googling his name in the first place. What has been more interesting than his life and work has been coming across all the purported ideals behind the Peace Corps program.

Shriver said, with typical American grandiosity, “The Peace Corps represents some, if not all, of the best virtues in this society. It stands for everything that America has ever stood for. It stands for everything we believe in and hope to achieve in the world.”

Seriously, Sarge, maybe not quite everything. But Peace Corps has always been an agent of youthful idealism and satisfyingly nebulous concepts like world peace and friendship. It has also been, more concretely, an outlet for volunteerism, public service, and community giving, all ideals that are no longer high on the priority list for most Americans or the politicians they elect to represent them, if they ever were at all. Informally, Peace Corps has further been a beacon for anyone with restless wanderlust, a sense of adventure, brimming curiosity, possibly a twinge of hero complex, and lots of energy for hanging out with lots of different kinds of people.

An investment banker friend once asked how being in Kenya had changed me. "I now view the world in terms of communities," I said. She gave me a blank look, but paid for my outrageously expensive sushi dinner.

Communities are the organizing principle that I see every society designed around. Ten years ago my trajectory in the world was focused on a sun named Justina and planets called job, hobbies, friends, partners, vacations, parental disapproval and an underlying existential dread about some void I couldn't put my finger on. I was like most people I saw around me -- too self-absorbed, too concerned about acquiring personal status symbols and cultivating an impressive outward identity for others to even notice that we each belong to a community, and most of us belong to many communities.

But it's not enough just to belong. Since coming back from Kenya, I'm deeply convinced that we each have a role and an obligation to participate and engage in our communities. I'm also deeply convinced that few people truly value this participation if it requires an actual sacrifice of their time, money or comfort zone.

I don't fully agree with Shriver, though. The mirror metaphor isn't complete. Sure, break mirrors. I think what we're really striving for when we learn about our neighbors' faces, though, is learning more about our own. Looking in the mirror doesn't reveal as much about ourselves as looking into our neighbors' living room windows. Not that I'm suggesting being a peeping tom. But.

There are so many things I've learned about myself through learning about Kenyans, and Thai people, and my parents' culture, and unemployed men in economically depressed countries and New York neighborhoods drinking outside shops and harrassing women walking by. Ultimately, when you've started to understand people seemingly so different from yourself, you've suddenly started to understand yourself a little better as well.

I recently read The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a brilliant and exhaustively researched account of a refugee Hmong family resettled to California and their struggles with the American health care system. The author, Anne Fadiman, at one point says that she now admires the Hmong more and idealizes them less than she did when she first met them.

There are a lot of things left unspoken in that comment. The frustration that comes with dealing with people who don't have the same values as you do. Who don't communicate the same way. Who don't value your status in society the same way because of your gender. Who think less of you because you're not the same race as they are.

Idealizing a culture is easy when you've never been challenged by the things that aren't beautiful and colorful and exotic and musical and mysterious about it. Admiring a culture once you've been challenged - and defeated - by the unbeautiful things is something that doesn't come automatically. It takes compassion, for one thing. For me it has also taken a lot of time, a lot of distance, and a lot of reflection.

Most Peace Corps volunteers return home with a solidifed commitment to communities as well as a clearer idea of how to build and work in them. When Obama visited Kenya in 2006, when he was a Senator from Chicago and I was in the second year of my service, he said that he was impressed by the incredible sense of community that he saw in the country.

It was supposed to be a compliment, but by then I had figured out that communities aren't perfect social structures. A community is formed around something that all members have in common, but also excludes people who don't meet those requirements. Those requirements are often rooted in being born into a certain religion, tribe, ethnic group, social class or gender. And exclusion frequently comes in the form of  institutionalized discrimination, active persecution or violence. I no longer idealize the concept of communities, but I admire places where people value theirs.

I wouldn't trade my two years in Peace Corps for anything. If I had the money I'd go back to visit in a heartbeat which, if you knew me then or if you followed my Kenya blog, was something I was incapable of saying for years after I returned.

People told me before I shipped off to Africa, "It will change you." Of course it will. Duh. Two years in a rural African village? No other foreigners around? Your naive liberal heart bleeding with sympathy for all those suffering women and children? But it doesn't change you in the ways you expect. For one thing, you stop idealizing. You get cynical and angry. And, when your heart softens again and your soul heals, your cynicism eventually turns to admiration.

It's not Peace Corps the government bureaucracy, but Peace Corps the air-drop into the bush that changes you. The program is still based on some vague notions from the era of hippie love. I mean, what does world peace look like anyway? Yet in very concrete ways volunteers bring home a new view of the planet as composed not just of atoms, but of villages.

Participating in a community becomes a lifelong pursuit. We've learned that serving and helping is rewarding, but comes with great sacrifices. Our market system doesn't reward teachers, social workers, public health experts, or anyone else who breaks mirrors. But we do it anyway, because we believe it brings us closer to being citizens of the world.

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