Last week, the Catholic community celebrated Ash Wednesday, and for the first time in over a year, I voluntarily went to church.
Throughout my life as a Catholic, I have often skipped church, but my attendance was always more on than off. It wasn’t until my last year of Peace Corps that I truly began quitting church. For an entire year, I sat through an hour of barely-understandable readings and prayers—many of the words in the Bible are foreign in English, much less Spanish!—before I realized that I didn’t feel a connection. Going to church no longer offered me a sense of community, or that deeply satisfying feeling of self-understanding, or the closeness to God and to others that I once felt before. Furthermore, singing and quiet reflection time are two things that I have always relished about going to church, and neither of those things were present in Ecuadorian masses. (Believe me, there is no such thing as quiet in Ecuador.) So, I finally stopped going.
After returning from Ecuador, I attended mass with my parents for a few months, both out of a sense of obligation and a secret hope that maybe a fire would be rekindled. Instead of finding my way back to God, however, I found myself quietly fuming over politically-driven homilies about abortion and presidential elections and ranting to my family about our priest’s dictator-like behavior. I couldn’t even follow along with mass anymore; unbeknownst to me, the Vatican had changed the prayers I’d been saying since Kindergarten and many parts of the mass itself while I was in Ecuador. What I had previously assumed were differences due to translation or culture were actually permanent changes to how Catholics worship. Why can the Catholic Church make a major decision on how every priest in the world will say mass but not on who can lead mass? Or how to grant women positions of leadership in the church? Or how to become more loving towards populations that we’ve previously shunned? I would think as I loudly said the wrong words at the wrong times. After much stewing, fuming, and head shaking, I decided to quit church for good.
This Ash Wednesday, however, I found myself sitting in the hard wooden pews of the Catholic church down the street from work as the priest read the opening prayers of mass. Despite my willful indignation towards the Catholic Church, I find myself waiting in line for ashes year after year. Something about Lent speaks to me. Apparently, something about Lent speaks to many people. According to the Catholic Church and an article recently released by TIME, more lapsed Catholics come to church during Lent than during any other time of the Liturgical year. The Church hypothesizes that it’s the practice of fasting that draws people back to the Church during Lent. Naturally, the article implies that most regular and returned worshipers treat Lent as a second chance to make those forgotten New Years resolutions a reality, giving up chocolates, fatty foods, and other things that benefit nobody but the person doing the fasting. Although that explanation is entirely plausible, I would also argue that Lent is the one time in the Liturgical year when Jesus seems the most human, and therefore the most accessible as a religious figure. It is during this time that he escapes into the desert to reflect and pray. In his time of solitary fasting and worship, he is tormented relentlessly by the devil, constantly made to face his own weaknesses. He struggles with his own mortality and ultimately faces his fear of dying. Who can’t identify with that? And yet Jesus overcomes these weaknesses, resists temptation, and ultimately conquers over death. His story is one of faith and hope and triumph. How can we not be moved?
All theories about increased church attendance aside, I admit that most of us are prone to making superficial sacrifices during Lent, myself included. In the TIME article, Pope Francis elaborates on what it is he believes Catholics should be giving up for Lent:
[I]f we’re going to fast from anything this Lent, Francis suggests that even more than candy or alcohol, we fast from indifference towards others….
Describing this phenomenon he calls the globalization of indifference, Francis writes that ‘whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.’ He continues that, ‘We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.’
As I read the remarks, I couldn’t help but think of the many populations to which the Church itself has been indifferent over the years: women, gay people, those who have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of priests and other members of the Clergy. Let us not forget that former Pope Benedict was, before his days of infallibility, responsible for addressing cases of child abuse within the church. As the Guardian points out, “The evidence of church delay and indifference, if not obstruction, throughout the 80s and 90s is copious – and it came about when the [former] pope was the Vatican’s most senior official, second in this matter only to John Paul II.” And yet, despite his inability, or rather unwillingness, to protect children, he rose to the most revered position in the Catholic Church, a position that involved providing daily counsel to followers on how to be good, loving, and devout disciples of God.
“If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” the current Pope said when asked about the Church’s stance on homosexuality, and yet the Catholic Church still firmly condemns those who “choose the gay lifestyle.” Two short week ago, my best friend married her longtime partner and now wife. Despite her own reservations as a devout Catholic, my friend’s grandmother decided she wanted to attend the ceremony, to celebrate the happiness of her dearly beloved grandchild. When she asked the Church for permission to attend, however, she was quickly denied.
And the Church continues to uphold edicts against contraception and a whole host of women’s issues that the leadership can’t even pretend to intimately understand. I saw the harmful consequences of this most vividly in Ecuador, where women were literally weighed down by their children, their eyes dead and dull. In a society where men control sex and women, especially those who are married, have very little say in in the matter, the prohibition of contraceptives is especially harmful. Whether they want to or not, women continue to have more and more children and families quickly sink farther and farther into poverty while the Church tells them that this is a cross they must bear.
I know that I can’t and won’t forgive the Catholic Church for their shortcomings; they have never even asked for such forgiveness. And yet this suggested Lenten resolution still resonates with me. It touches a part of my heart that has been aching for a while now. It’s difficult to live without a wall of indifference. As a small town girl in a big, bustling city, I often depend on my indifference to survive. Every day, I am completely and utterly surrounded by people. On the train on my way to work. In the streets. In my own apartment building. Every day, I face the poor, the hungry, those struggling with addiction and mental illnesses. As I listen to my neighbors shout obscenities at each other and blast their bass so loud that I can feel the floorboards shake against my bare feet, I build my wall of indifference. As I walk past the babbling man on the corner with the crazy look in his eyes, I build my wall of indifference. As I work and work and wonder what good all this working is for, I build my wall of indifference. Out of fear and exhaustion and frustration, I continue to build and build my wall of indifference.
Just as Pope Francis said, all of this indifference has left me numb to the concerns and struggles of those around me. As the days become more and more hectic, I draw further into myself, enveloping my mind in an endless string of my own struggles. Now, I look out from a well of self-concern and perpetual dissatisfaction—with work, with Chicago, with running and writing, with myself—and I can’t help but wonder how I got here. Perhaps breaking down the wall of indifference is what will also break me out of this mold, this endless feeling of exhaustion.
Every once in a while, I contemplate going back to church, even more so in the past couple of weeks. Even if I never return to those wooden pews during this Lenten season, I’ll be thinking about how to lessen the influence of indifference in my life because I know that Pope Francis is right on this one; it’s a truth that I feel in my gut. Even if the Catholic Church, as an institution, has not always modeled responsibility in its words and actions, we have a responsibility to each other: to make a place for the joys and struggles of others in our own lives. As Brené Brown so poignantly says in Daring Greatly, “we cannot selectively numb emotions; when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive ones.” So as the Pope suggests, I’m not just giving up Starbucks for the next 40 days, although that is also part of my Lenten resolution. I’m also giving up indifference. Because as much as I want to avoid pain—my own or that of others—a life devoid of the human experience, good or bad, is really no life at all.
“Remember, misery is comfortable. It’s why so many people prefer it. Happiness takes effort.
Also, courage. It’s incredibly comforting to know that as long as you don’t create anything in your life, then nobody can attack the thing you created.
It’s so much easier to just sit back and criticize other people’s creations. This movie is stupid. That couple’s kids are brats. That other couple’s relationship is a mess. That rich guy is shallow. This restaurant sucks. This Internet writer is an asshole. I’d better leave a mean comment demanding that the website fire him. See, I created something….
Whatever you try to build or create–be it a poem, a new skill, or a new relationship–you will find yourself immediately surrounded by non-creators who will trash it…. Just remember, they’re only expressing their own fear, since trashing other people’s work is another excuse to do nothing.”
—6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person; I can’t say I agree with everything in this article, but it made me reflect on the risks and rewards of creativity and why it’s important to silence the critic and press on.
The beginning of September marked the one-year anniversary of my return to the United States after finishing my Peace Corps service in Ecuador. To be honest, it kind of sneaked up on me. On most days, Ecuador feels like a long distant memory or an epic dream that I finally woke up from one random day in August, not a place where I lived and worked and called home for two years. So I didn’t even realize the one year mark was approaching until a few days beforehand when it dawned on me like a thought that comes in the middle of the night: I’ve been living in the United States for over a year. My most initial reaction was disbelief; how could an entire year have passed so quickly? I’ve only begun to put my life back together.
A year ago, I left Ecuador feeling deeply disappointed and frustrated by Peace Corps, exhausted by Ecuador’s machismo and lackadaisical work culture, terribly homesick, beaten down, and more than ready to go. Yet, when my boyfriend asked me how I felt to be back in the United States while we sipped our celebratory one-year-in-America drinks, the first word that came to mind was “sad.” In fact, I could barely keep myself from crying. As with most things related to Peace Corps in my life, this was not how I expected to feel. I am more than happy to be in the United States. I frequently find myself comparing where I am now—physically, mentally, and emotionally—to where I was a year ago, and the overall improvements astound me every time. To say that my life has changed greatly in the past twelve months would be an understatement. As I crawled into bed that night, I realized that what I had taken to be sadness—in other words, an overwhelming urge to cry—was actually extreme and profound gratitude. I closed my eyes and counted the many sources of my gratefulness: being close to family; having a job where people take their responsibilities seriously; working alongside ambitious coworkers; being able to drink water out of the tap at any time; being able to wear a dress in public without being harassed by every man on the street; feeling safe(r); having a community of friends—volunteer or not—who are constant in their love and support and understanding. Yet, beneath all of this, some part of me still yearns for long afternoons speaking Spanish with my Ecuadorian friends or host family, the beautiful, colonial streets of Loja, delicious fruit juices and fresh vegetables, and the perfect if not slightly rainy Andean weather.
The truth is that my Peace Corps experience was complicated and still is.
In recent days, Peace Corps has found itself in the mainstream media on a number of occasions. First, by its own accord, when the organization announced major application changes that will grant volunteers more control over the country and program in which they serve and allow them to leave for service sooner. Then, less positively, in July when the New York Times simultaneously released a myriad of essays on Peace Corps service written by returned volunteers and an article detailing the tragic medical missteps that eventually led to a Peace Corps volunteer’s death. Both pieces paint a picture of a dysfunctional, sometimes successful, more often flawed organization. As I read through both the essays and the terrible account of Nick Castle’s death, I found myself back on that roller coaster of emotion better known as the Peace Corps experience; I, too, had deeply felt the vast majority of the discontent, disappointment, and concern contained in these articles, and it was powerful to see that volunteers spanning continents and Peace Corps programs had felt the same. One volunteer wrote:
Volunteers like myself cannot do their jobs without support, and as of now, the Peace Corps does not support its volunteers; it is only worried about looking good to Washington so it won’t lose funding. It didn’t matter that I was getting sick and couldn’t do my job. It only mattered that on their forms, I was still at my site and “doing” my job….I don’t feel that I was effective (not from a lack of effort on my part) because I wasn’t cared for in a caring way. No one was looking out for me but myself.*
That last sentence rolled around in my head for days, digging up memories that I had long put away. I remembered Peace Corps’s refusal to help me buy a new cell phone after I had been forcefully pickpocketed in a crowded bus. Despite my concern that I wouldn’t have enough money to both eat and get a new phone to comply with security rules, Peace Corps claimed “volunteer negligence” and left me to figure out the issue on my own. I also recalled my sitemate who, upon asking the Peace Corps doctor for time to recover from a severe illness before traveling to Loja, was accused of lying to get better travel accommodations and sent on a ten-hour bus ride. As a result, his arms went numb halfway through the trip and volunteers were scrambled together to escort him to the hospital upon arrival at his destination. I also thought of another sitemate’s many trips to the eye “specialist” who delivered an incorrect diagnosis of early-onset glaucoma (although we didn’t know that at the time) and was later deemed to be an idiot by the very Peace Corps doctors who sent her there in the first place. I remembered talking with volunteers about our general distrust for Peace Corps and the shared feeling that nobody from the organization was concerned about our well-being.
In fact, many of the frustrations I’d discussed with fellow volunteers during my time in Ecuador appeared in print, like Peace Corps’s low standards for volunteer success (“A better definition of volunteers’ success”), their inadequate responses to volunteer complaints and emergencies (“If I ever have a daughter, I would recommend that she apply”), and their tendency to blame the volunteer (“The culture tells the volunteer to make it work”). Perhaps the quote that most accurately speaks to my own experience, though, is this one:
For me, the most frustrating part of Peace Corps was its culture. The onus of success seemed to be placed solely on the volunteer. If the volunteer struggles, it’s because she isn’t trying hard enough to adapt.* It’s a culture that ignores factors like: a host family with rigid expectations, a host brother making sexual remarks (or worse), a community in flux, incompetent administrative employees or poor program management. The culture tells the volunteer to make it work, and the volunteer quickly learns how to navigate within these confines.
Gatherings of volunteers often resulted in an outpouring of frustration, negativity and unhappiness. Volunteers coped by drinking too much, lashing out at locals and acting in ways they wouldn’t dare at home.
I’d like to see Peace Corps create a culture that is more supportive of struggling volunteers, especially those who, through no fault of their own, have been placed in unhealthy or unproductive situations. Peace Corps needs to examine how it treats volunteers who don’t have that village-idyll experience, and adapt to the reality of the volunteer’s needs.*
Today, few volunteers have the “village-idyll experience” that Peace Corps has touted in countless ads and PSAs over the years. Like it or not, the world is more interconnected now than ever and the landscape of Peace Corps service has changed. Yet, an outdated approach to supporting volunteers remains. From the beginning of training, Peace Corps tells volunteers that sometimes it’s best if the volunteer just goes home. They remind trainees that Peace Corps is not right for everyone. In fact, they say, going home isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength because it takes courage to face the imperfect reality of your service, recognize your own unmet needs, and give up a goal or dream to prioritize your own well-being. To some degree, that is certainly true. However, “knowing when to go home” often becomes a sneaky way to shame a volunteer into leaving and a convenient excuse to never analyze or fix the situation that led to a volunteer’s discontent in the first place. As a result, Peace Corps remains ill equipped to support committed and serious volunteers who have been placed in volatile situations or matched with disinterested counterparts and communities, often due to Peace Corps’s own lack of research and preparedness. Unfortunately, it is also frequently the most committed volunteers that go home; after all, if you’re only in it for the free time and some good travel stories, why should a lack of work prompt you to cut your time short?
When I was struggling through the last months of my own Peace Corps service, other volunteers and even friends told me to go home. “Why not go home?” they’d say. “You would be happier there. Is it worth feeling like this just to finish the last few months?” I considered it multiple times, but always rejected the idea. How does leaving remedy Peace Corps’s ineffectual leadership or general lack of structure, expectations, and metrics for success? After leaving, I would become nothing but a stack of paperwork and all of Peace Corps’s faults would remain the same. Instead, I stayed. I worked 40 hours a week at my local high school and in a university English program, and I represented and worked to remedy my fellow volunteers’ concerns as part of Peace Corps’s Volunteer Advisory Council. I left with an excellent understanding of Ecuadorian culture and an even better understanding of Peace Corps’s pitfalls. By the time our group finished, half of our original 62 members had left their service early and nobody batted an eye.
Of course, there are volunteers who do marvelous, impactful work, but too often it is due to luck: the right volunteer being put in the right community with just the right amount of resources and interest at just the right time. In the meantime, other volunteers report one or two “cultural events” and Peace Corps congratulates them on their great success without ever truly measuring if volunteers, as a whole, are effective or stimulating change. (Again, see “A better definition of volunteers’ success” for more on what I mean.)
Yet, for all my discontent, it’s still difficult for me to be honest with others about my views on the organization. Pointing out Peace Corps’s many flaws doesn’t exactly make you popular within the volunteer community. Volunteers tend to romanticize their experience, during and after their service, even if they were mostly miserable or unproductive in country. I can understand the temptation to do so. Peace Corps exposes you to a new culture, exotic sights and truly once-in-a-lifetime experiences. It gives you time to explore who you are and most, if not all, volunteers leave with deep friendships forged with other volunteers over shared vulnerabilities and struggles. My service defines who I am today, and part of me still wants to hold on to that pristine image of Peace Corps I had before going to country. When I share my criticisms of the organization with others, it pains me to see their image of Peace Corps being tainted. But criticizing is not the same as condemning. In fact, I’d say it indicates great caring.
As I said, it’s complicated.
A year after Peace Corps, I am still struggling with a multitude of health and reintegration issues. In one year, I’ve been tested for parasites four times and treated twice. I’ve had four cavities filled, two of which should have been spotted and treated while I was in Peace Corps and are now so large that I may need a root canal. (But guess who gets to pay for it now! I guess Peace Corps “dodged a bullet” on that one.) In between parasite treatments and fillings, I’ve also visited the doctor for a myriad of other health issues, averaging about one appointment a month. My immune system is certainly not what it was pre-Peace Corps. On top of that, Peace Corps dropped my post-service healthcare after 7 months, despite promising 18 months of coverage upon returning home. (Thanks for your service!) Luckily, I was able to find a job relatively quickly and am now insured, but I know many Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) who were left without care and without a solution after their service had ended. Reverse culture shock and reintegration has also been challenging. I’m still deconstructing some moments of terror from Ecuador, overcoming lingering fears about safety, and slowly recovering my self esteem after working in an environment that told me I was never enough for two years. Sometimes, as I’m piecing together my life in America, I look at the challenges I’m facing now, challenges that are direct results of my service, and I think, “And for what?” Maybe if I had been permitted to work on more meaningful secondary projects with at-risk youth or on HIV prevention, I wouldn’t feel this way. But all this to teach English to some uninterested high school kids?
Yet, in spite of all this, I feel fortunate for my Peace Corps experience. I feel privileged to say that I am one of just 215,000 volunteers that have served in the Peace Corps since its founding over 50 years ago. As the result of my service, I feel confident in the knowledge that I can do the hard things—move to another continent, live in a foreign culture, stand up for myself, set and break limits, and navigate unknown terrain, both literally and figuratively. What I’ve learned about perseverance, perspective, and trusting my gut is immeasurable, and what I’ve gained—fluency in Spanish, Peace Corps friends who are more like family, a better understanding of the world, and a more global point of view and cultural awareness—is priceless. I know that my life as it is now would not have been possible without the experiences I had in the Peace Corps. As one RPCV wrote in her essay:
I can’t speak with 100 percent certainty that any projects that I undertook changed lives. But I am 100 percent certain that my Peace Corps service shaped me into a better global citizen. It equipped me with the important ability to approach a different culture with humility and respect, to listen, and to understand. Furthermore the cultural humility and wide-lens perspective I gained in Uganda will echo through everything I do in my own country. The benefits of Peace Corps service cannot all be measured.
Working on an international team in a high-end corporation. Moving from a town of 9,500 to a city of 3 million. A wonderful cross-cultural relationship. These are things that I never imagined for myself pre-Peace Corps, things that are only possible because of my time in Ecuador.
My service also showed me that I am strong and capable and braver than I ever believed. Peace Corps equipped me with the confidence to tackle the unknown and the ambiguous, to fail and get back up again undefeated, to persevere in the face of systemic or seemingly unchangeable circumstances. I don’t know who or where I would be without the experiences that taught me these valuable lessons. As one RPCV put it:
Returning to America in 2011, I felt empowered. If I could make it in the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere as a single female, then I could tackle anything that the U.S. could throw at me. Upon enrolling in graduate school in 2012, I chose to pursue energy policy as my specialty, feeling comfortable in work environments in major petroleum companies and public policy positions where women are traditionally underrepresented. Peace Corps gave me an internal sense of resilience that was hard-won and will stay with me forever.*
Along with that “internal sense of resilience,” a mostly unshakeable confidence in myself, a web of strong friendships, and two years of unforgettable experiences, I left Ecuador with the knowledge that I did good work in spite of imperfect circumstances. After a daily dose of Catholic guilt, I am immune to the shame and blame that others sometimes use to manipulate, and I am content to roll with the punches (on most occasions). Above all, I am daily grateful.
A year ago, as I wrote my final blog post as a Peace Corps volunteer, I closed with the below quote from Vaclav Havel.
Hope is a state of mind, not of the world…. Hope…is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed…. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.*
A year later, I still feel hopeful. Regardless of whether or not my teachers and students still remember the lessons I taught them, regardless of my struggles in Ecuador, regardless of Peace Corps’s many shortcomings, my service still makes sense. Of this, I am certain.
*Emphasis definitely mine.