I have always been a reasonably intelligent person, but I was never one to ponder existence or sit under a tree and think about religion. In the states, I attempted to start journals, but they always failed. I would write a few entries and stop. Maybe I was tired before I went to bed, ran out of interesting things to say…who knows. During my Peace Corps service, though, I have become a thinker and a journaler. I think all the time. I think about the culture that I have become a part of; I think about my own character—my attributes and faults; I think about my place in this world and where I belong; I think about my spirituality and things that I want to change about myself. I journal almost everyday. It is, without a doubt, the best therapy I have ever had. I am about to start journal number three since I landed in Botswana.
The other day I was thinking about my time in Berlin a couple years ago. I studied there for 6 months. My friend Aimee visited one weekend and I remember how many astute observations she made about the culture—things that I had overlooked because I was so comfortable in Berlin. I had already lived in New York City by that point. And although there were many cultural differences about Germany, it was still western. Berlin was not a foreign environment to me. And I remember wishing that I were more like Aimee, that I could notice things like she did. Happily, my wish came true.
I notice new things everyday here. There are many differences in this experience that account for the change in my ability to perceive my surroundings. I am older and more aware of myself. I am in a culture much more foreign to me, so I am constantly learning. Regardless of how comfortable I feel and how close I am to people, I will never be able to feel like I understand all of it. And I am changing so much. I realize new things about myself, the way that I think, and how I react to others. As this transformation happens, it can’t help but affect the way I perceive the world. I am so happy that, almost 8 months into this 26-month journey, I feel like I have so much more to learn.
In that vein, two major journeys of mine have emerged. One is my quest (inapt word, but I can’t find a better one) for a spirituality. The other is my aim to be a more patient, compassionate and understanding person. They go hand-in-hand.
I realized that I no longer wanted to believe there was no God when I read Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I was still in the states. Since then, I have been open to different religious traditions, wondering if there is one out there for me. I really wanted there to be one religion that just clicked. I wanted an AH HAH moment, when I could say, “This is the religion for me!”
Unsurprisingly, that hasn’t happened. I like certain things from many religions. I like the idea of a holy spirit from Christianity, but I reject pretty much everything else. I like that the Koran is supposedly directly the word of God as spoken through Mohammed. That makes more sense to me than the Bible. I love many aspects of Buddhism, especially meditation. I like how Buddhism says we should strive to relinquish our attachments to worldly things, like money and status. However, I don’t want to escape the cycles of pain, sickness and death that mark mortality. I want to be sad. I want to hurt. I want to laugh. I want to experience happiness because I love another human being, even if that happiness will inherently be taken from me. I don’t want to achieve some sort of Enlightenment without those experiences. Those are what it means to be human.
But that’s all I’ve got. I decided a few days ago that I want to have a spirituality based solely on compassion. Obviously an important aspect of religions is a system of rules to guide what we should and should not do. But inevitably some individuals will break a rule, and that creates dichotomies of “good” and “bad.” And because we are humans, it leads to judgment. I don’t like judgment. If I could remove one thing from my psyche, it would be negative judgment. I just want to love people. I want to understand the missteps, not to judge them.
Obviously this lends itself to a discussion of the things that I want to change about myself. Anger, frustration and sadness are important emotions and I would never want to remove them from myself. That being said, they can manifest themselves in unhelpful ways. I call it “the New Yorker in me”—the ability to go from zero stress to 10 in just a few seconds. You all know what I am talking about, when the smallest thing can just set you off and make you freak out in a way it never should. You miss a train, you think you will be late for a meeting, you miss a phone call, you lose your car keys. The stuff that doesn’t really matter. But sometimes it does matter, or it could matter. Regardless, going from 0 to f’ing NUTS in a matter of seconds usually does not help the situation, nor our ability to deal with it.
I think I have said that this Peace Corps journey isn’t just important because we are spending two years doing something most people couldn’t—or wouldn’t. It is most important because of the things we will learn about ourselves. A discussion of the real impact of Peace Corps volunteers is for another post, but I will leave you with an article by a PCV serving in Senegal that I think is particularly apt. We learn how to react better in many situations, including failure.
Here it is: