Kyle Kvamme, 129 YinD
I am writing this confession on my own free will. I hereby admit to breaking one of the golden rules of Peace Corps service. A rule 20 months ago a much more naive version of myself never dreamed of breaking. I plead guilty to the charge of comparing my service to that of other PCVs.
In 2018 Social Media can be a blessing for PCVs’ serving in post. An instant way to connect with loved ones back home. The ability to see every wedding, birthday party, and holiday in as close to real time as we can achieve through time differences. Additionally being able to connect to fellow PCVs in country and see the amazing things going on in their community. This is where Social Media becomes the dark seductor of this tale.
But before we head into the rule breaking, a little context. Last spring (slightly over a year into my service) I hit, at the time, the lowest point of my service. I felt as though I had done absolutely nothing in 14 months (except pick up some Thai). The school term was just about to start and I could only identify one counterpart who was able to help lead youth activities, an English teacher whose time was very limited. People in my community were wondering what I was doing there, or assuming I just showed up to teach all of the children to speak fluent English. Worse of all, I felt like an afterthought to my community members. Almost forgotten about until I showed up, my face a reminder that I was in fact still here. Thinking about spending another ten months at site, doing absolutely nothing but counting down days until COS completely pained me.
I took solace in two things: running (a newly found passion of mine) and checking my Facebook. On really hard, lonely days I found myself opening my Facebook (or other social media apps) often. I wanted to escape my reality and fall into the virtual world of my friends and family all around the world. I went to this realm for a joyous release, but that isn’t what I found.
More often than not I would stumble across two common themes. The first being posts of family and friends from back home, celebrating milestones and achievements in their lives or just enjoying a beer on a patio with friends. These types of posts would make me long for a taste of home and remind me of all the things I was missing from a place I loved so much. The second common theme would be posts from my fellow PCVs in Thailand; moments from their lives with new friends in their communities or pictures of seemingly perfectly planned and orchestrated projects, with the smiling bright faces of many young children.
I wasn’t consciously thinking, “Wow (insert name here) is such a better volunteer than I am! Look at how many more project they’ve done than me.” The thoughts more so looked like “If only I had (so-and-so’s) counterpart, I could be working on all these amazing projects.” Or “(blank) is such a great volunteer. I wonder how they were able to facilitate that camp.”
So in scouring social media for an escape from my pain, it sent me to darker places within myself. I would see posts from my friends in country and see all these projects I dreamed of bringing to my community. A sense of inadequacy lingered around for many months. I doubted many things including my work, my community, and most of all myself.
In pre-service training we had been told by almost all currently serving PCVs to NOT compare ourselves to other volunteers. I never thought about these words from past PCVs when I was scrolling through Facebook. I didn’t even register I was doing it. But I wish I had. I was too busy trying to leave my current situation.
During this period, I wanted my service to be over so badly. I would think what’s the point of me being here? I felt as though I wasn’t doing anything other than sitting around counting down the months/days until I would get to go home again – to really start living my life. The amount of unhappiness I was feeling was bearing on me.
Personal tragedy caused me to take a hard long look in the mirror – the lowest of all the lows felt during this period that made me realize things had to change. I began to switch my habits; exchanging bad habits for better ones. I stopped thinking about work all together and focused on even the littlest things that brought me joy.
I started to notice myself feel better and slowly reach happiness, the feeling whose presence I had longed for what felt like months and months. Once I was able to step outside my funk I was able to see that I had been the one causing myself pain. From the outside it might be apparent but I truly couldn’t see what I was doing.
The antagonist of this story isn’t social media, my community, or other PCVs; I was the villain. I was projecting my unhappiness instead of dealing with it head on. I had to take responsibility for my unhappiness and make necessary changes in my life to be able to smile with ease again.
Writing from the other side of the darkness doesn’t mean the work got any easier. My counterparts might never fully understand the importance of life skills activities. They might never be able to co-facilitate activities the way I want them to. My projects might not have the outcomes I want. And my community will never have a big Peace Corps funded camp. And all of this is perfectly fine. The success of our service isn’t determined by holding large camps with many pictures taken.
We are the ones who determine the success of our service. Success doesn’t stem from objectives, outcomes, and Facebook posts. It’s waking up and greeting whatever comes your way, hopefully finding moments to smile with ease.