Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What we expected

Sam and I have spent the last several days and even weeks slowly paring down our stuff, washing our sweaters one last time so we can donate them, shifting books into piles of "definitely take," "probably take," "maybe take," and "are you sure these won't fit into our bags?"  The process of unloading and trying to decide what we will keep and what we'll leave behind comes when it should, near the end of our 27 months of Peace Corps service.  Sam leaves in 16 days; I'll be another month behind him in taking off. Having the piles to make and shift, the clothes to wash, the work with physical things, helps us keep our hands and minds busy, which is good because it's tough to think about leaving here and tough to think about readjusting to paying bills and following baseball again.  But the work doesn't always stay the mind, and our thoughts have been all over the place lately.

A lot of our conversations have focused on what we expected and how far we missed the mark on our expectations.  I've heard a lot of my fellow PCVs talk (and blog) about regrets and and failures in their service.  I think we're all about at that point, thinking "I shoulda..." and that makes sense.

When I was applying for Peace Corps, going through orientation and even making my way through our intensive training, I had my expectations.  I was going to learn a new language.  Really well.  I was going to finally make myself learn how to knit.  I was going to have Sam teach me to play the guitar, and to speak some Arabic (because one or two new languages is never enough).  I was going to write on this blog religiously.  I was going to take lots of photographs.  I was going to really integrate into my community and forge lots of lifelong friendships.  I was going to travel to many new countries and all around the country I was placed in.  I was going to stay positive at all times and really Make a Difference (in capital letters, of course, because it was Serious, How Dedicated I Would Be).  I was going to write grants and receive money to implement amazing community development projects.  I was going to make my mark.  I was going to better myself in the process of bettering the world.

I'm sure that if I polled PCVs worldwide, I'd find that the ones who actually responded to the poll (we're pretty notoriously bad on responding to polls and surveys at this point, after 26 months of way too many evaluation forms and surveys) would have a list like mine of things they expected to do or to get out of their Peace Corps service.  And, I'd be willing to further bet, that most PCVs on the cusp of heading home have been letting themselves get down about the things they failed to do, about the things they expected that never came to be, about their regrets.

On this front, I should add that a few months ago, a lot of PCVs here in Georgia were sharing this article about what one returned PCV learned about failure during her service.  In a lot of ways, the article really rubbed me the wrong way.  I think it jumps all over the place, on different kinds of topics that are all labeled in the end as failure (she talks of challenges, setbacks, celebrating small successes, not having unrealistic expectations, realizing that we are not perfect, and failure).  As I begin the Serious Reflection Time myself, I think the article really does highlight some of the many feelings we all go through during Peace Corps. It's certainly true that we feel like failures in Peace Corps a lot.  We have lots of time to ourselves with our thoughts and we go down the rabbit hole of regret more often than we should.  I think this article, that was shared and exclaimed about by lots of us, emphasizes this, but it doesn't really emphasize how much of this is just us playing mind games with ourselves.  I still don't think it's accurate to name these times when our expectations didn't align with our outcomes as "failure;" that's just life, whether in Peace Corps or elsewhere.  Maybe it would be fairer to say that something about the nature of Peace Corps (as a major life-changing event) causes us to forget this.

Of the PCVs I've been privileged enough to get to know and work with here in Georgia, I can say with certainty that none has been a failure in any sense.  Many may have regrets, but they shouldn't, not about the work they've done nor about the good they've accomplished.  Some have excelled as teachers, getting students to care about learning English or start doing their homework.  Others have helped their organizations gain computer skills or new equipment, or just how to hold office meetings that start on time and don't allow yelling.  Some PCVs have written grants or started clubs or created resources that will continue to benefit their communities for years to come.  Others have made friends with locals and been really able to share in cultural exchange.  Still other PCVs have provided the support of their fellow volunteers that we all needed to get through the rough days, giving us shoulders to cry on, patiently listening as we complain about eating fried potatoes for yet another dinner.

We all came into this with our expectations, as any person does as they enter any new phase in life. The failure to meet these expectations doesn't equal failure overall, though.  Maybe the most important things we can learn from our service are not to deal easily with our failure, but to recognize and celebrate our successes, no matter how small; to set reasonable expectations for ourselves and others; and to learn what it is that we are truly capable of.  


  1. This may sound really self-centered, but this is how I feel about motherhood - just sub in "McDonalds' fries will never touch my children's lips" and "all food and drinks will be consumed in the dining room" for the knitting and Arabic. You and Sam are a huge success, wonderful role models and Makers of Differences (in a good way). I love you and can't wait to be just 3 hours-ish away form you!!

  2. This was so great to read, even almost a year after I've left. You and Sam have done amazing things in Georgia, and I'm sure your communities and fellow RPCVs(!) will never forget your impact. Hope to see you on the same side of the world soon!

  3. What a very good summation of what must have been an amazing two years. I know how difficult it is to leave an "adopted" country; very mixed. But the experience is a treasure. Thanks for posting this.