It didn’t take long after arriving in Indonesia, to realize that my idealistic goal of “saving the world” was not going to happen. I wince even writing it, because it’s just shows how naïve I once was. Back when my idealism was at its peak, I could see all of the social and environmental problems we face and I believed that—since many of us are well aware of many of the causes—it was just a matter of actually going out there and doing something to find solutions and fix them.
Fast forward through a year-long application process to join the Peace Corps, and I was on my way. Education, yes! I thought. Education is the key to healthy individuals and societies. Fast forward a few weeks into Peace Corps training, and I was already doubting how English education would improve any Indonesian’s life. That thought stuck with me throughout service, but other things were accomplished. Yesterday, my counterpart and I gave a particularly uncooperative class an hour-long speech on how our goal as English teachers—and in giving the assignment that they hadn’t taken seriously—went beyond teaching a few vocabulary words. It’s about learning preparation, my counterpart translated for me, and developing your ability to manage time and work with a group. It’s about being responsible, which is a skill that, more than English, will bring you success in the future. Effectively, this made an imprint on a few students, since they came to me after school and asked for help preparing their assignment, and today, this one group rocked it. Mission somewhat accomplished.
Here, I’d like to draw attention to the phrases “a few students” and “somewhat accomplished.” Before Peace Corps, everything I did was either completely accomplished or not at all because, in addition to being idealistic, I am a perfectionist with the things I care about. Last year, this tiny percentage of students improving would infuriate me, and I spent a great deal of time blaming myself for not being a better teacher. Fast forward to the last month of my Peace Corps service, and my satisfaction with those “few students” and that “somewhat” preserve my sanity. Still, I mourn my idealism.
Idealism used to be my superpower. It made me believe, wholeheartedly, that all of the global problems we face could actually be solved and it brought me here, to give it a try. Contrary to what I could have ever expected, two years of Peace Corps made me skeptical of that vision. At times, it even made me a cold-hearted cynic, as I wondered why I even cared about the planet’s problems at all. I think Peace Corps made me a worse person, I texted a friend during a particularly low time. I don’t really believe that, but Peace Corps did expose me to the reality that my idealism hadn’t considered: an overwhelming amount of complex circumstances and frustrating people that obstruct the goal of finding solutions to global problems.
(Side note: Here I should note that I don’t pretend to know or even, fully comprehend, what the best solution for each community, city or country is. I respect other people’s points-of-view and their cultural and religious beliefs and priorities, which may contribute to their current conditions, and that likely differ from my own. Still, it’s a fact that no place on this Earth is perfect; every place has problems—some that are more urgent and severe than others. And, for the sake of equality and justice, and in order to uphold the basic human rights I believe every individual in this planet has, certain problems must be addressed, or at the very least, uncovered and discussed.)
My idealism superpowers have faded and now, I feel mostly powerless. Every day, just in my daily life as a PCV in Indonesia, I am powerless against the indifference of certain students and teachers. I’m even more powerless against the slew of circumstances that fuel it—those that are beyond my control—including poverty, corruption, a lack of incentive and opportunities because of inequality. If I’m powerless against these things, how can I hope to address more expansive problems against bigger players like politicians, lobbyists, businesses and entire industries that benefit from—and have no interest to change—the status-quo? This thought even had me questioning my current plans to continue working in sustainable development. In this field, am I doomed to be like Sisyphus, rolling a stone up a mountain, just to watch it fall back down? That’s what last week’s cancelled project felt like, and I’m barely beginning. Is an end-of-service crisis a thing?
My idealism was mortally wounded—until I came across John F. Kennedy’s “Peace Speech” given in American University on June 10th, 1963, in which he powerfully states:
“Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.
We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again.
I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of universal peace and good will of which some fantasies and fanatics dream. I do not deny the values of hopes and dreams, but we merely invite discouragement and incredulity by making that our only and immediate goal.
Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions – on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned. There is no single, simple key to this peace, no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process, a way of solving problems.”
Life is strange and mysterious. Though this Peace Corps experience put my idealism to rest, randomly encountering the wise words of the long-deceased Peace Corps founder rekindled the romantic realist within me. This imperfect world, in all its chaos, is beautiful. Humankind, with all its capacity for reason and ardent emotions—it’s what I’m passionate about. It’s with this spirit that—in spite of the guaranteed disappointments and frustrations of the work I’m undertaking—I can’t imagine devoting my time or energy to anything other than serving people while striving for justice, equality and peace.