Perspective, resilience, and grit: lessons learned from life in the Peace Corps

by | Mar 6, 2020

The Peace Corps celebrated its 59th birthday this week on March 1st. This time of year I always tend to take a walk down memory lane and reflect back on my time as a volunteer in Panama from 2005-2007.

The anniversary of your first year in-country is kind of a big deal–a bit of a milestone. Now you know enough to feel like you are more Panamanian than not. Your projects have started to take hold. Time starts to fly.

The evening of my one year anniversary I took out my ever-present journal and jotted down some thoughts about lessons learned in my first year. Every once in a while I read these lessons over and I realize how relevant they are 14 years later.

            At the present moment, I am unsure if it is ironic or indicative of the state of affairs of my life right now in that currently I am truly the happiest, most content, most grounded I’ve been since honestly, I can remember.  Ironic, because I am living in a third world country as a volunteer far away from all I’ve known, the people I love, and a culture I can call my own; or indicative that I’ve made the most timely and best decision to date in my life in deciding to join the Peace Corps. 

            As I reach the end of my first year in-country, I find myself sitting in my new comfy chair watching the stars come out and the tide flowing in reflecting on a few things I’ve learned so far in my tour…

I’ve learned that I can’t do it all on my own.  I’ve learned I can do more than I thought I could alone.  I’ve learned patience.  Except for roosters.  For which I have no patience.  I’ve remembered how to laugh at it all because it really all is funny. 

I’ve learned how to let it go.  How not to over-think.  How things are what they are.  I’ve been reminded of the beauty within everything.  Within everyone…I’m still not sure of. 

I’ve learned to focus on and appreciate reality, instead of searching for the fairy tale and living a tale of fiction.  Life is much easier that way!  I’ve developed strength I thought I already had, and the size of my strength reserve continues to awe me…just when I think I am tapped out. 

I’ve learned what people think of you isn’t important as long as you are living it right.  And I’ve learned how empowering and freeing it is to not waste energy on thinking of what others are thinking.  And the fact of the matter is, they’re probably not thinking of you, and if they are, what does it matter anyway? I’ve learned it only matters what people say about you if you let it.

 I’ve learned that I can–we can–adapt to almost any situation.  And the strange and inconceivable can quickly become the norm. 

I’ve learned to ration what I give of me to whom. 

I’ve remembered how to enjoy myself. 

I’ve learned to live with things I thought I couldn’t and live without what I thought I needed.  I’ve learned to appreciate non-holey underwear, super-soft toilet paper, flush toilets, and washing machines. 

I’ve learned, and am still learning, how far faith can take you.  That there is more than one way to skin a cat. 

I’ve learned that sometimes we can’t be in control.  Ok, sometimes I can’t be in control of everything, and I’m actually OK with that.

I’ve learned to embrace machismo culture because, let’s face it, never again will I have so many marriage proposals, catcalls, or declarations of love…even if they don’t know my name.   

I’ve learned what it’s like to be really truly lonely.  And to learn loneliness is to learn a lot about yourself.  And then, ironically, with this newfound knowledge, you find that you’re not lonely anymore because you realized that you’re the only person you are ever always going to have.  So if you didn’t before, you learn to love yourself. 

I’ve learned there is a lot to learn staring into space—especially when that space includes lapping water, mangroves, and palm trees.  I’ve learned that dancing around my casita in Panama is just as therapeutic as dancing around my room when I was 5, and 10, and who are we kidding, 30.  A hug and a belly laugh a day will keep the homesickness away. 


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