Guest commentary: The Allegory of the Box
Editor’s note: The following piece was written by Shannon Dick, an Aspen High School graduate and Snowmass Village resident who is volunteering with the Peace Corps in Rwanda, where she has lived for almost a year. It originally appeared on her blog.
Let me begin by bursting bubbles and telling you that people tend to have a warped perception of, what I like to call “The Peace Corps Experience.”
We hear about Peace Corps all the time in the States — it’s constantly referenced in movies and seen as this incredible adventure that lasts two years and changes the lives of those who participate. (I was watching “The Devil Wears Prada” the other day, and one of the characters is complaining about how his girlfriend spends too much time doing the bidding of Meryl Streep; when she points out that he works a lot, his response is, “Well it’s not like I’m in the Peace Corps!”)
I’m not saying that this is false, but it’s only part of the story. I was talking to my mom the other day and telling her about some of the challenges of the Peace Corps, and she told me, “Well, if you could step outside the box to where I am, you would see what an amazing thing you’re doing!”
Her comment made me think: Could I really step outside the box? This is what I came up with: The problem is that once you’re inside the box, you really can’t step outside again. It’s like Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Once you experience more than the shadows on the wall, you really can’t go back into the cave again and be like, “Wow, those shadows are amazing.” It’s the same thing with Peace Corps. Once you’re in it, you realize that you really can’t step outside the box again.
Now, that doesn’t mean that I can’t take Peace Corps outsiders into the box with me, so friends and family, never fear! I can tell my stories, explain what I go through and give you more than simple sound bites about my “trip” to Africa.
But I’m not going to lie to you: Peace Corps is hard. It’s not an adventure every day, and most days I don’t wake up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and exclaim, “My, what an incredible experience I’m having!” Pretty much every day is a challenge. As a volunteer, I work 24/7. My entire life is my job: integrating into my site, talking in Kinyarwanda, visiting people, teaching at the school, doing clubs, doing secondary projects … everything.
I end each day exhausted, and I don’t always feel that glorious sense of accomplishment that you think volunteers would feel. You definitely have those moments where you think, “I’m so glad I’m here!” but you also have the moments where you think, “I’m insane for doing this, aren’t I?”
You have the moments where you want to just say “I quit!” and go home, and you have the moments when you feel like this is exactly the place where you want to be. There are so many moments of failures but also some of success. You’ll have a week when everything sucks and you have to give yourself a pep talk in order to leave your house, and then you’ll walk into a classroom and have 60 students cheer and clap because they are so happy to see you, and you’ll know that the bad times are worth the good ones. You’ll have days when you’re so busy that you run around from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m with nothing to eat, and then you’ll have the days where you sit and do nothing — literally, nothing — for hours on end (I didn’t understand what it meant to sit and do nothing until Peace Corps, but now it’s one of my favorite activities.)
There can be a million things I could be doing, but when I feel like I can’t be bothered to do any of them, I sit down and do nothing: think, sometimes, but mostly, nothing.) I’m writing this because I tend to only post on the funny stuff, the good stories, the moments that make Peace Corps worthwhile and keep me in country; but my time here has been made up of the good days and the bad days, and I feel like the bad ones should get a little recognition, too. That being said, I wouldn’t still be here if I didn’t want to. Even though Peace Corps is probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do, for a number of reasons, I choose to stay here because of those precious good moments.
So for those who are curious, I guess you can consider this post a ladder to climb inside the box. Welcome!
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