Sunday, May 11, 2008

Reflections on Retirement

In an essay for my Peace Corps application I was asked to write about my expectations. I wrote:

I expect my service will start with feelings of overwhelming excitement and optimism. As I adjust to my new life and language, the novelty will wear thin and the reality of two years of service will stare me down like an endless abyss. Frustration, loneliness, and worthlessness, will show up throughout the two years, but will always be trumped by satisfaction and success. I look forward to periods of high highs and low lows, both of which will grow areas of myself I never knew existed. My service will be mentally, physically, and emotionally challenging, but I will love the good and the bad.

As I was recently rereading that essay, I was shocked at how well it captured my thoughts as I end my service. Although it’s probably hard to believe given the title of this blog, “A two year retirement,” and my jokes since day one that this was a two year vacation, I joined Peace Corps and came down to Nicaragua with excitement, motivation, and optimism. I didn’t simply join Peace Corps to delay the “real world.” For a variety of personal and professional reasons, I was ready to lend my time, intelligence, and effort to try to do something more important than what I was doing at the time, formatting Excel spreadsheets and getting drunk with friends. I was ready to actively help with things that I had always passively agreed with. A few months later I found myself in Nicaragua, optimistic, excited, and motivated.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that’s talked to me for more than a few minutes during my time here that my initial optimistic feelings were quickly replaced by “frustration, loneliness, and worthlessness.” So I was correct in predicting those feelings throughout my two years, but what I didn’t understand, as I naively wrote that essay from the comfort of an Ann Arbor apartment, was the upper limit (and in some cases the very definition) of those feelings. (I’m not going to try to describe those feelings. I’ve found that unpleasant honesty often gives the wrong impression to people at home and they just end up asking me why I’m still here or if I regret my decision to join, or they tell me that a few years down the road I’ll appreciate my service, implying that I hate it now. These questions or comments normally just make me more frustrated.)

I was also naive in believing that those feelings would always be trumped by “satisfaction and success.” I definitely had months where frustration and worthlessness far outpaced any satisfaction or success I was feeling, but as my upper limit on frustration changed, so too did my definitions of success and satisfaction. In the traditional sense of the word, I haven’t had much success down here. Most of the projects I tried ending up failing and most of my students, I can confidently say, didn’t really learn much from my class. But I think that if you’re ambitious enough and you spend your time trying to solve or improve hard problems, you’re bound to fail some of the time, meaning your definition of success becomes a bit more humbled. I’ve learned to find success in the simplest and smallest forms, and my satisfaction hasn’t come from succeeding, it’s come from simply trying. In the end, these small successes and the satisfaction of trying (not necessarily succeeding) has been enough to trump the feelings of frustration and worthlessness.

So with the clarity of hindsight I would have to change some of the words or at least better define frustration, loneliness, worthlessness, success, and satisfaction. But if I wrote a reflection on my service after 24 months (I guess that’s what I’m doing!), I wouldn’t change a thing in the last two sentences of my initial thoughts. In a number of ways I’ve changed down here and I believe, now more than ever, that to change or to grow as a person you have to put yourself in uncomfortable, challenging positions. You have to test your upper limit on frustration, for example. The low lows and bad times are what make an experience significant. These two years in Nicaragua have been incredibly difficult and therefore, these two years have been very meaningful and worthwhile (at least personally). It has been “mentally, physically, and emotionally challenging,” but I did love and appreciate the good and the bad.

I’m just glad it’s all over! I’m not sure I ever again want to experience anything nearly as hard. At least not before a nice, long, comfortable break with hot showers, artificially controlled climates, trash meals, DTV, close friends, and family. USA, here I come!