10 juillet 2012
Dealing with problems
Think about a difficult time in your life. Maybe you grandmother died, or you got fired from a job, or you broke up with your significant other, or you were experiencing financial difficulties. Think about how you felt, and how you dealt with it, and how you coped.
Did you call a friend?
Maybe you visited a special place, somewhere that has always made you feel at peace with the world?
Perhaps you went to your church/synagogue/mosque/temple/place of worship and prayed for awhile?
We all have problems in our lives from time to time, and we have all evolved our own ways of effectively coping and dealing with those problems. Indeed, a large part of adolescence is learning to acknowledge and understand those problems, and figuring out how to deal with them. There’s no one single solution that works for all of us, and really there’s not even one single process – it’s a mess of trial and error experimentation, and for every useful tool that we discover (positive stress relief through art, for example), there are inevitably 2 or 3 dead ends that we have to work through (sex, alcohol, and drugs being the most common).
Now imagine you’re having that problem, but your entire suite of preferred coping mechanisms is denied to you. You can’t talk to a friend, because you barely speak their language. You can’t visit your special place, because it’s 8000 miles away. You can’t go to your preferred place of worship, because your community is 100% composed of members of another religion, and it’s too poor to afford a house of worship anyway. How upset do you think you would be? How hard would it be for you to deal with the problem?
This is what having any personal problem is like in the Peace Corps. Whether it’s something minor – say a spat with your landlord over the exact amount of your water bill (if you’re lucky enough to have a water bill) – or it’s something major – like your homologue and every other man in town sexually harassing you 24/7 – it’s always hard to cope with. Your friends and family are far away, your places of comfort are equally distant, you’re surrounded by members of alien culture who don’t speak your language, and it’s almost impossible to positively externalize the problem in any way, shape, form, or fashion.
This is why Peace Corps has such a high Early Termination rate, and why they spend so much time and energy making sure that PCV alcohol use is healthy. Problems in the Peace Corps are hard, and there’s not really any way to make them easier. After 9 months away from home all it takes is something small, like a goat eating your favorite shirt, to trigger a massive firestorm of tears, screaming, recrimination, and a whole lot of ‘this-ride-isn’t-fun-anymore-I-want-to-go-home’. It happens to all of us to one degree or another, and figuring out how to explain it to friends and family can be almost impossible.
So what do you do, when a problem comes along, and your normal coping mechanisms aren’t available? How do you deal with it, without going crazy, catatonic, or downright murderous? What tricks do PCVs have, to get by when everything seems to be coming apart around them?
Short answer: they endure.
Simply put, that’s what a good part of Peace Corps service consists of: enduring. You endure stage. You endure the hot season. You endure the never-ending meal of bad food and company that’s in a language you barely understand. You endure that nine-hour bus ride that is a never-ending misery of stomach cramps, explosive diarrhea, and overcrowding. You endure, and then you endure some more, and then you endure some more. Because if it has to be endured, it can be endured.
And hopefully, if you’re lucky, and if you keep your eyes open for the opportunity, in the midst of all this enduring, you will look up one day and realize hey – you’re actually having fun. In fact, you’re not even enduring anymore, you’re just looking forward to each coming day.
Then, when the next challenge comes along, you do it all over again.
Until one day, you’re done.