Doubt and Survival in the Peace Corps

Peace Corps service is something that can rock you to the very core of your being and shake your innards until they’re so scrambled you can’t tell your dreams from your nightmares. Why did you even come here in the first place? What was it that told you it was a good idea to leave everything to do this? Is the world any better off for you having been here?

You wanted to do this so badly for so many years and now all you want to do is go home. This is about the point in your thought process when you find yourself at the bottom of that downward spiral called doubt.

I’m not talking about doubt’s healthier cousin, skepticism. A healthy dose of skepticism can be good for you. You should question your motives, probe your thoughts, consider your feelings and weigh the pros and cons when making any important decision. Here I’m talking deep-seeded, soul-searching gut-wrenching, ulcer-inducing doubt. Why am I here? What am I doing? Is any of it worth it? Is this where I want to continue to give two years of my life?

imageI’m suddenly doubting every past decision to eat meat

At no other point in my life have I wavered in so much doubt. I’ve agonized over staying or leaving and even talked to an Army recruiter on the phone a couple of times the first autumn I was here, willing to scratch my name off the line to sign it on another, even longer contract.

It comes and it goes like tides pulled by a giant orb above our heads, almost as sure as the moon herself. Now, fortunately, she’s sailing in another sky and with any luck this season of survival will last for awhile. Yet, having been here for almost two years, I have started to realize a pattern of strategies for riding out the high tide of doubt when it inevitably comes.

Stop asking so many questions

I never used to ask myself, “Am I doing enough?” As soon as that question crept into the back of my mind, things started to go downhill. At the end of any honest search to this question lies a resounding, “NO.” You could always do more, always reach more people, always start one more project. There is way more that needs to be done within a community and country than you can possibly do. Asking yourself this question is guaranteed to result in a crushing, soul-searching session sooner or later.

And if you start questioning the work you are able to accomplish, you will soon find yourself doubting the good when weighed against the sheer hopelessness of making a dent in the world’s problems. As long as you’re working and connecting with people, you’re doing some good here. Leave it at that.

Do what you like to do, and keep doing it. One of my volunteer friends has a great strategy of simply doing a level of work that he knows he can repeat again the next day, and the next, indefinitely. This way he knows he won’t burn out, but will continue to thrive in enjoyable, meaningful work.

Take care of yourself

You are going to be miserable help to everyone if you are miserable yourself. There’s a reason flight attendants remind you to put your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone else. You’re not very useful if you’re dead.

Take the time to eat right, exercise and drink water. One of the biggest boosts to motivation is simply drinking more water. Water helps brain function, helps you get more rest while you’re asleep and keeps you alert and in a better mood throughout the day. Peace Corps issues you a filter—make good use of it.

Don’t give up on your hobbies just because you’re in a different place. Continue to do them or share them with others if you want.

Seek to strengthen your relationship with God. Your need for Him will likely be felt more acutely here than anywhere else.

Relax and breathe. Seriously. You’ll forget to do this at multiple points of your service.

Find humor in just about everything

You are going to experience some tough things, and there is a time for being somber and mourning with those who mourn. But even people going through their darkest days don’t want to wallow continuously. There will be plenty to get angry at or upset about and those are appropriate reactions to injustice and suffering. But don’t stay there. You have to balance those emotions with the little quips and smiles because brooding is a sure onramp to the downward spiral highway of doubt with no exit sign in sight. If you’re here to make things better, enjoy doing it.

And if you need to go home, go home

There’s nothing worse than after carefully weighing your options, you choose to suffer. The world’s not going anywhere. There will be more volunteers, more projects and more opportunities. As much as it is a hit to the ego, at the end of the day we Peace Corps Volunteers are just one small slice of what’s going on in our communities and in the lives of our friends, co-workers, students and neighbors. They’re going to be fine, and so are you. You can continue to keep in touch or even come back sometime, if you like.

Why I still put up with the doubt

Having said that, I’m glad I’m working through the doubt and am continuing to decide to stay. If I hadn’t I would never have met Maksat, a great friend, business partner and inspiration to me and the future of Kyrgyzstan. I would never have met my best friend Nazgul or experienced first hand the struggles of those living in a small village, out of the reach of big city resources and opportunities. I also never would have gotten to share my own English teaching skills with as many teachers nor had the time to be an influence on other people’s lives. There are so many things you can’t learn or do unless you have the backing of months or years.

For me, I think of it like being married. When I do get married, I’m not going to just wake up one day, doubt my decision and take off. The doubts will be there and maybe for a long time. But you don’t get married so you can see how it goes, playing it day by day. You get married because you’ve decided, “I’ll love you forever.” I often have doubts about being in the Peace Corps and being in Kyrgyzstan. But I also know that I’ll love them forever. And that’s why I’m still here.

imageThis one’s going to last

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