“Tell me, Legolas, why did I come on this Quest? Little did I know where the chief peril lay! Truly Elrond spoke, saying that we could not foresee what we might meet upon our road. Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back. But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy. Now I have taken my worst wound in this parting, even if I were to go this night straight to the Dark Lord. Alas for Gimli son of Gloin!” – J.R.R. Tolkien in The Fellowship of the Ring
And so the time has come: the end of Peace Corps, or more appropriately, the beginning of something new. My heart is so full it feels like it could burst. I feel so much gratitude for all of the Indonesian people that have taken me into their homes and lives. I feel so much appreciation to those—near and far— that were there for me through this ineffable experience. I feel elated, and relieved, that I actually made it through and that I can now move towards something else—a sort of freedom!—and I feel sad because this has been my home for two years. I feel that, and about a million other feelings in between. May has been the most intense month of my life, a culmination of two high-quality years, which have been a roller coaster of conflicting emotions—and at times like Chinese water torture (thanks for the reference, Joe)—but I was aware and actively participating through it all. Now, I don’t long for comfort and ease, though I do long for balance. I need a break from the extremes.
The physical discomforts of Peace Corps are seldom the hard part. Rather, it’s overwhelming to go through so many crests and troughs that are so intensely felt when you’re so far removed from the usual comforts and distractions—or the base line, which is how I’ve pictured it. When life is good here, you are soaring on a high that seems unreachable, and when you are low, it feels like you will implode. I often thought I should be medicated, and it takes a long time to recuperate. Why does that happen?
Like I said, at home, there are so many distractions. There are so many activities, so many people you can easily talk to. To me, that is the medication. If you feel bad, you go hang out with friends. If you feel good, you go hang out with friends. You can numb your feelings. Here, there’s also that, but for me, a lot of times, there wasn’t—mostly because it takes two years to make real bonds and find close friends. My Bondowoso friends have been my sunshine when things were gray, but there’s a lot that gets lost in translation. Their baseline is different, and there’s a lot they can’t fully understand about what it’s like to be a foreign person here—the constant gawking and at times, harassment, the screaming for my attention, the questions I’ve received a million times—and there are many other stressors that I just keep to myself. It wears on you. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we are patient, flexible and tolerant, but after two years, we do burn out. I am burned out.
When I first arrived in Indonesia, I was ready. I had this fire of positivity and idealism, and I poured my heart into every relationship and activity. Some things were fruitful and others failed. I think it was a new experience for me to put forth extraordinary amounts of effort, and still experience failure, because never in my life have so many things been outside of my control. I’ve never had to depend so much on other people. I guess I needed to be in this vulnerable position to truly understand how small I really am, and how everything is much more complex than it first seems. I’m still processing that.
The future also makes me nervous. In Peace Corps training, we go over what it will be like to readjust back to our American lives, and I always thought it was silly. I’m not going to be that person, I arrogantly thought, but I probably will be. Recently, I attended a Peace Corps party with more than 50 American volunteers and I felt anxious and out-of-place. That’s not who I used to be. And while I’ve always avoided small talk, in-depth discussions on the delusions and disillusions of life tend to vex or overwhelm those who have not yet been through two years of Peace Corps. In my immediate future, what will I talk to “normal” people about? Right now, every other topic (except music) feels uninteresting and unsatisfying, and at the same time, all words are futile. Our experiences are varied, and we all go through our own emotions and perceptions, alone.
In his essay on “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members…The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs. Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist…Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind… It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude. This resonated with me, and I recognize this to be the challenge as I move on and reenter American society.
This is my most prominent worry: that this experience will become just a memory and that I will be reabsorbed into a society I gladly left and have hardly missed. I mentioned numbing feelings before, but I don’t want that. I don’t want to be a drone, set on auto-pilot and manned by external forces. I don’t want to lose myself glaring at screens, thinking about doing something, but actually doing nothing, and missing life as it goes by. Here, I had enough distance and solitude to be aware of everything. All of the difficulties felt magnified, but it made me appreciate every thing a thousand times more. I’ve had the best meals here, and the best showers. In spite of all of the 4AM calls-to-prayer, I’ve had the best sleep. I’ve read the best books. I’ve had the most mind-blowing conversations and karaoke sessions in the company of amazing friends. One single kind act, encouraging phrase or thoughtful message has lifted my spirits in ways I have never known. I did my best to connect with those around me and to help in the limited ways that I could. I took nothing and no one for granted. I’ve experienced joy. I want to continue being this person that feels compelled to write a song about a student recovering from a motorcycle accident—though I hope never to live through an incident like that again. I do want to be this person that can sit outside on an empty field for hours marveling at nothing and everything while analyzing “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd, or losing my mind over Incubus songs. This is who I really am—and it’s the me that comes out only when I’m truly moved by what I’m doing, and I was here. Every day.
Before coming here, I used to worry about becoming a person with a calloused heart and domesticated passion. Now I know I will never let myself be that. Here, I set my heart on fire and watched it burn. At times, it was unbearably painful because disappointment, helplessness and loss hurts—and I often wondered why I willingly exposed myself to that—but then I take a look a the small gains, achievements, good sentiments and relationships that came with it. It took a lot out of me to build what I have here, and it’s taking just as much out of me to leave it behind— which is tangible as I stand in a classroom, or a kitchen, or a porch and cry with the people whose lives I’ve touched, and whom have touched mine. I feel drained, and so tired, because during these past two years, I put in the most amount of heart work that no preceding job or activity has ever inspired from me; I don’t want to forget the way that I feel right now—this beating person forged in an arbitrary community and self-imposed solitude.
Today, I end this chapter of my life, and blog, and I go on to refuel. First, I need balance, but I can’t wait to return to this ardent heart work once more. And thanks to Peace Corps Indonesia, I’ll be a lot more prepared for it next time.