Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Comparative Life

I am not a competitive person. I refuse to play sports with or against the competitive team. I refuse to play games to see who will win. I only like competitions when they are ridiculous, the outcome doesn’t matter, and nobody talks about it as soon as it is finished. Competition takes all the fun out of any activity. However, I do live a very comparative life. I am always checking out who is doing what, how well they are doing it, and making sure that I am doing better than anybody else. This probably explains a lot about my grades and why group projects frustrate me so much, but it can be absolutely detrimental in Peace Corps.

Before I came to Samoa, I asked the few people I knew currently serving in Peace Corps what their experience was like so I would have an idea of what to expect. The gist of all the answers I got back was “I can’t really explain it – everybody is different.” I understand that completely now. Every time I see another PCV, I always have a million stories to tell because even though we are all rural primary school teachers in Samoa, my life is so vastly different from what any other PCV in Samoa is experiencing that I always have news. It is really great to share stories because I usually get new ideas from other PCVs every time I talk to them. I also take comfort in the fact that other people are struggling with parts of their PC service, and feel so lucky that I don’t rats that invade my room and bite the skin off my toes at night (that happened to another PCV), I don’t have a principal who threatens to get rid of me because I interfere with corporal punishment at school (that happened to another PCV), and I don’t have to eat pisupo (canned corned beef) on a regular basis (whereas some other PCVs do get it on a regular basis). But mostly, I don’t like to talk about PC life with other PCVs because I can’t help but feel that everyone else is doing so much better than me.

Nothing cements that feeling better than coming straight off a long vacation into a mid-service conference full of lesson planning, reading strategies, and…success stories. Success stories from other PCVs make me want to hide in a deep, dark cave on the other side of the world, and even that might not be far enough away to protect me from feeling inadequate. I live a perfectly wonderful, effective, helpful PC life as long as I don’t talk to anybody else about it. But as soon as I hear what other people are doing, all those great things I think I may have achieved lose their luster. However, I’ve also noticed that other PCVs feel this way too. Great, but not even marginally helpful to pull me out of that fifty feet of crap beneath rock bottom.

Whereas this effect was particularly devastating at our training last year, I seem to have more of a buffer to it this year. I think this is due to a lot of things. Some mix of feeling more confident in my achievements, seeing the progress of my students over the course of the year, seeing how much I am a part of my village, how much I can talk to other people in Samoan, etc., etc. – everything has improved over the course of a year. I think the most important part though is that Peace Corps has been a huge lesson in focusing only on what you are doing and not concerning yourself with what other people are (or are not) doing. I learned this at school because it does me no good to get frustrated when all my teachers show up an hour and a half after me, but still sign in saying they got there ten minutes after I did. I also learned this because some people are better at teaching drama to their students so they can put together a play for the whole school at the end of the term. I haven’t taught high school drama for a couple of years. I don’t have that experience. I’m not great at making other people do what I want them to do, I’m not great at playing rugby (I haven’t even tried, actually), and I’m not great at swimming. I like sitting on the beach, I like reading books, and I like as much conversation as I can handle (sometimes that is a lot, sometimes that is very little). There are too many things in the world beyond our control – basically everything. I’m learning not to concern myself with it so much, and as a result, I’m not as upset by it. I wish I had learned this earlier, but with my comparative nature, I think this is one of those things that I can only learn by blunt and brutal force. It seems to be working.

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