Why I Don’t Have Peace Corps Guilt

“It is the business of the very few to be independent; it is a privilege of the strong. And whoever attempts it, even with the best right, but without being OBLIGED to do so, proves that he is probably not only strong, but also daring beyond measure.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Recently, there’s been an article circulating the interwebs from Huffington Post about a current Peace Corps volunteer experiencing “Peace Corps guilt.” Though I do not fully agree with the sentiment of the article, I’m not here to force my opinion on you and tell you what you’re supposed to think or feel; this is just a chance for you to see the other side of the coin.  Unlike our dear writer, I did not join the Peace Corps to “understand what it means to be poor,” nor did I join “to figure out how to escape the guilt of having so much while other people have so little,” because this is the reality of life, and it is inescapable. We can ask the question “what am I doing here?” all we want, but our time here is limited because the world and its struggles are countless, and no amount of humanitarian work and no amount of altruism will ever truly liberate us from this “guilt.” And yet, sitting here, I do not find myself wallowing in this terrible despair. Reading this, I doubt that even you are fully resigned to the unshakeable guilt that supposedly burdens us as Peace Corps volunteers.

So why then should we struggle on in the full knowledge that all our efforts here will eventually lead us to the same place? As much as we may stave off the grim reality of humankind, the realization that the world cannot be saved by one person is comforting. It is a truth I am absolutely certain about. Like Sisyphus and his boulder, our lives knowingly consist of an absurd and constant struggle to make things better, to help those less fortunate, because as John Locke once said, nature demands egalitarianism. However, unlike Sisyphus, we are not eternally bound to bear this burden of guilt, the tolerance of guilt is the worst mistake we can make. But being here and seeing what we’ve seen, doing what we do, gives us a sense of hope that it wont forever be this way. Guilt should be, at best, what drives you to join the Peace Corps, not what you learn from it.

I don’t feel any guilt or regret for the life I had back in the States. To do so would be an affront to my parents who worked hard to provide for our family and to ensure I had a good life and a good education. I feel only appreciation and reverence that I was so lucky. And my life in NYC was no different. I frequently went to the movies and out with my friends and I don’t feel guilty about it because I’d spent countless hours hard at work, often staying until ungodly hours of the night, to ensure that I had sufficient income to do so. I recently spoke about this with my friend and fellow PCV who echoed the same sentiment: “[our lifetime of social conditioning is beyond our control. If anything, I have more pride after experiencing this, but it doesn’t mean that’s automatically a bad thing… I want to appreciate it all so much more and to understand the important things, and to really take note of that, and while it sucks right now, it will make me appreciate it all more when we go back.]” Call me selfish if you like, but in fact, the act of joining the Peace Corps to do something completely selfless is inherently a selfish act. I came here with the realistic expectation that I’m not going to save the world, but I guarantee I’ll make a difference in the lives of those in my community. That is my first and foremost motivation for joining, and if I become a better person because of it and I learn to appreciate all the little things I’ve often overlooked like washing machines, air conditioning, take-out/delivery, heck, even running water, then that’s a big accomplishment.

The full experience of life itself is to embrace what you’re given, and we cannot help but embrace the good along with the bad, for both sides exist in equal measure. I don’t feel guilty coming from a life of privilege, and I wont feel guilty going back. But when I do, I’ll bring with me a newfound well of knowledge and appreciation that hopefully never runs dry. I think Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” There is no room for guilt in what we’re doing, we’ve all made it this far, and that stands for something.

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4 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Have Peace Corps Guilt

  1. Though I was never in the Peace Corps, I did an exchange program via US govt abroad. I relate much more to this than the other article about guilt. Thanks for getting your opinion out there. I do want to point out that it is not wrong for other author to feel the way she did. It seems a bit unhealthy, but there is not reason to be angry about it. I do not think any of us have that much control over our emotions.

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  2. Thank you for posting this. That article has been making the rounds with the Mongolia PCVs, and a fellow PCV and I had a discussion about our disagreements with the article. I too will be posting a response, but I enjoyed reading yours quite a bit.

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  3. I was kind of with you until getting to that part about all your hard work and your parent´s hard work. I would think one thing that most PCVs would realize (I know I did) was the complete randomness of our situations. ie You were not born in rural Cambodia, you were born in the U.S. It is entirely irrelevant that you spent countless hours at the office and earned the time to see a movie, the real reason you can do this is because you were randomly born in one place and not another. You don´t need to feel guilty about that by any means, but you shouldn´t convince yourself that it was all your doing.

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    • I understood this differently. She writes, “I feel only appreciation and reverence that I was so lucky.” That implies that she understands that her relative position in life, aided with the hard work of her parents and herself, was spawned simply by chance.

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