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How serving in the Peace Corps is like looking at a Monet

Peace Corps like Monet (Wikimedia Commons)

Serving in the Peace Corps is like looking at a Monet.

A lot of people don’t know this, but most of Monet’s works are actually huge. Like, take up an entire wall huge. Many people never get the opportunity to see one except in a textbook or on a screen but if you ever have the chance to see one in person, take it. 

When you see one of these paintings represented within the space of a few square inches, they resolve themselves right away. You mind immediately turns those swirls of color and light into an image that you can comprehend. Okay, this is a bridge over a pond with some lilies in it. Big deal. 

But then you get in a room with one of these masterpieces and suddenly you’re not so sure of what you know anymore. That overwhelming wall of color doesn’t resolve itself into a legible image right away. 

This is the story of trying to understand, in three stages. 

Stage 1. You get right up close.
The artistic frenzy is palpable in the brushstrokes. Color dances with light, varying the rhythm but never breaking stride. No image can be extracted from this chaos of color, but it doesn’t matter because the mastery in front of you is enough to occupy your weary mind for hours. 

Stage 2. You take a few steps back.
The intricate details of the craftsmanship fade away but you’re still too close to the painting to see the larger picture. You’re confused, you’re frustrated and you begin to wonder why you didn’t go see the Warhols instead. 

Stage 3. You step back across an invisible threshold and…
Finally, you begin to see how all of those colors and shapes come together to form a scene. A new perspective has led you to a more complete understanding and you can do nothing but sit and drink it all in, wondering all the while how those seemingly chaotic moments could join together to create something utterly enveloping in its splendor. 

Now, with the Peace Corps…
Stage 1: The first year of service.

Everything was SO EXCITING. SO DIFFERENT. SO NEW. I had to experience everything. I existed in a semi-permanent state of mental exhilaration. I constantly felt that kind of happiness that comes with doing something for the first time and not being entirely prepared for it but doing it anyway.

Highlights include: Riding to my community for the first time, anxiously wondering which concrete house was the one that I would soon call home. Going to my first parents meeting at my school and being called on stage to give a speech to 300 people without any warning whatsoever. Coming home from the store with a dozen eggs and slipping on the muddy path, breaking six of my eggs and getting mud all over my pants and laughing. Just laughing.

The first year is a series of moments. It means getting lost in the color and light and not really understanding what this experience will turn out to be but enjoying the beauty of the details anyway. 

Stage 2: Mid-service

You’re a year in, and reaching that benchmark forces you to take a step back and assess.

You begin to take all of those endless moments and start to try to make sense of them. Why am I here? Am I actually helping anyone? Should I be helping anyone? Does any of this matter? 

It’s extremely challenging and confusing but (and this is an important but) it is also extremely necessary. Of course you weren’t going to have the answer to all of these questions coming in. Of course you needed experience and reflection to even begin to think about those questions at all. At times, these thoughts can be difficult but seeking out your own answers to those questions is what makes you grow. There is no way out but through.

Which leads us to the best, most fun part. 

Stage three: The final year of service.

This is where I am now.

All of the shapes and colors of my experience have started to come together to form a bigger picture. My questions have begun to find their answers. I kind of know why I am here, or at least why I should be here. Distance and time have introduced me to that ever-fickle steward of peace: perspective. Now, when a microphone is thrust into my hand and I am asked to give a speech, the words flow easily from my mouth. 

Then I look out into the crowd and the faces of my students, and I spot that one girl. The one who sat quietly in class all year, until one day I asked a question and she spoke up. Her intelligence and her insight knocked me out and after class, I thanked her for her comment. Now, she speaks up during every class. And I realized that all she ever needed was a chance, a single opportunity to shine. Maybe she would have had that chance even if I was not here. But I am, and she did, and that is enough. 

I am so glad I didn’t go see the Warhols instead. This is exactly where I am supposed to be.