The undesirability of heroism
Hearing Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) discuss fungal infections, abscess scars, and which diseases merit treatment was a trip in itself. But it took me a day or so to realize these are far from the hardest part about what they’re doing.
At the end of my last post I casually labelled PCVs “heroes.” But are they? If you ask them, the result in clear and resounding: not remotely. A couple minutes after posting I heard from one of my PCV friends.
“I’m uncomfortable with labelling PCVs ‘heroes.’ We’re not.” But was it just modesty, or something more nuanced than that?
“The assumption is that we have a positive impact and that’s just not necessarily true. Good intentions don’t automatically result in positive impact. The effect we have can be really mixed.”
It’s unpleasant to admit, but I see at least two reasons this is true. First, the implicit conflict of trying to help a population become more self sufficient, sustainable, and not reliant on outside aid…via outside aid. How can you convince a population to not look to foreign wealth for help when your very presence shows how helpful (and immense) that wealthy help could be?
Second, a technique that works well in one area may be either useless or downright harmful in another. Culture is complex, powerful, and sometimes dangerously subtle (right up until the moment it eats you). And it’s one of humanity’s great tragedies that the advances we most need (like women’s rights) are often earned through the suffering of exactly the people you’re trying to help. Bring a women’s initiative to a place…then watch the patriarchy clamp down.
Then there’s a more personal reason PCVs dislike the “hero” label.
“There are actual heroes doing heroic things. We’re just trying to do what we can in 24 months. I just go to work like a regular person. The pressure of the term hero is…overwhelming.”
PCVs have a shadow behind their eyes, if not outright in their words. They call it “Peace Corps Guilt” (click here for a short write-up that is well worth a couple minutes read). If you’ve traveled, physically or mentally, the feeling “Good lord, we throw away more than these people have, how can I be so selfish?” will be familiar. (Don’t worry, the article’s not that bleak!)
Valid concerns, true questions, serious doubts. But in the end, the same way a politician who speaks of “good and evil” is not to be trusted, we have to acknowledge that life is not a matter of dichotomies and dualities. Nearly everything exists in shades of gray. The Peace Corps is no exception.
Going to work for a paycheck is a perfectly acceptable motivation. Doing it for the good of others or society is a wonderful thing (salute to all the teachers, nurses, and social workers out there!) But leaving behind your life of developed privileges in order to hopefully help people who have never had them, even knowing it may well be a giant waste of time?
I apologize to my Peace Corps Volunteer friends…but yes, to me, you are heroes. Imperfect, perhaps useless, maybe even harmful. But you’re trying. So: heroes.
Let me add one more note. The Peace Corps lists three goals in its Mission Statement. The first is the part about helping the people in the foreign country. The third is to fostering a better understanding of poverty and foreign countries among Americans. Nestled in the middle is something important.
“To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.”
At this moment when the US is being defiled by a president whose actions genuinely merit the term “evil” and who is tangibly damaging the standing of the United States on the world stage, your contribution to international harmony (and domestic sanity, at least mine) is crucial.
Thank you for everything you do.
As your ending implies, this is seems like an exercise in semantics. If you used the term “admirable people” rather than the (possibly) more baggage-ridden word “heroes” in your previous post I suspect that any controversy would have been avoided…though then you’d have had to come up with a different topic for this entry. 🙂
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If Peace Corps volunteers are uncomfortable being called heroes, let’s call them, say, healers and innovators.
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PCV here. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of this article – you covered a lot of bases when it comes to how I feel about my work… Thanks for taking the time to write this.
I’m very glad to hear it made sense. I’d love to hear anything you have to add about it!