Thursday, October 27, 2011

In transit through the Windy City

Feel a little cheated by that last post? Like you were behind the times, getting the news two days late? That's how I thought you'd feel. So here's something I wrote today:

As I write this I am in transit from Oakland to Philadelphia, stuck in Chicago for an extra hour due to a delay. The trip thus far has been uneventful, save for a kind soul who offered me his sandwich when it became apparent that I had didn't bring food with me on the plane. That's right, folks, it still throws me that on some flights in the US there isn't even the option to buy food. Back to the story, my neighbor gallantly justified his sandwich bequest by saying he admired the work I was doing with Peace Corps. So here's a well-deserved shout out: Thank You, Mr. Basketball Coach from Danville, you and your chicken sandwich made my day.

Over the past few days my anxiety about the moment of leaving my home and my family to dive into the unknown for two years mounted to the point of being overwhelming. I am relieved at the moment to feel much more calm than I had anticipated. It helps to have already had the experiences of leaving home, leaving for the unknown and leaving for an undefined period of time. It has a grounding effect for me, since I know that no matter how long and imposing the next two years may seem at some moments, I will be back. Not only that, but I know that I can succeed in the face of great difficulty. Hopefully I won't lose sight of this optimism too often over the next two years!

What I do not yet know is how I will react when it fully hits me that I will not be seeing my family again for such a long time. I've spent large chunks of time away from home before, but nothing quite like this. I am grateful that I have the experience of studying abroad in Senegal to guide my family and me through Peace Corps. The feeling of separation is made that much more acute by the fact that in this day and age we are used to being able to connect in a many different ways, from phone calls and text messages to Skype and email. When the going gets tough I won't be able to just pick up a phone and dial home. Even in Dakar I felt at times as though divine forces had to intervene for me just to open my email inbox, let alone type a message.

Which brings me to two other intertwined topics I've been thinking about - the role of religion in Senegal and survival strategies for adapting to new cultures in developing countries. Four months in Dakar taught me and my friends a lot of things, especially patience and perseverance. We learned to roll with the punches like a professional boxer, to reduce our expectations and to be open to anything and everything. If you think about it, life anywhere is stressful if you constantly try to exert control over it. I first encountered this idea while reading Epictetus in my high school philosophy class with Mr. Sutphin. The importance of a certain stoicism, I find, is even greater in Senegal, since we had so much less control over our lives, accepting this fact was a necessity. Lack of control becomes more apparent when one is immersed in any other culture, but in environments such as the developing world it is even more true. Internet access and air conditioning were constantly thwarted by unpredictable power outages and little could be expected to happen on time or as planned. We went crazy every time we tried to schedule things.

In the United States control is much more possible - buses run on timetables, roads are paved, the food is almost always safe, and if any of this isn't true you can probably sue somebody about it. The developing world lacks this kind of predictability and accountability. One of the ways this uncertainty is dealt with is religion. The cultural reaction to this state is the phrase "Inchallah," or "God willing." I don't have an issue with other people taking this vantage point, but personally I prefer not to bring God into my travel plans or access to email.

On the contrary, I feel that the cornerstone to success in such unstable and uncertain situations is extreme flexibility, which I see as being rooted in stoicism, which in itself can be empowering and give one a sense of agency. Life was much better when I let go of my expectations and let the sequence of events unfold, allowing each experience to be a new adventure. In other words, being completely open to the moment and all that it may bring. It's a very liberating feeling when done successfully, but one can also get lost by giving up too much control. In the end I think the result is similar to that when my Senegalese friends would explain the uncertain nature of their lives as due to unknowable will of God, or that "things will happen when God wills them to happen."  I just get a little uneasy with how readily some people give up their sense of agency completely in the face of difficulty. Instead of accepting that there are some things they have less control over than they'd like, it's almost as if they're saying "well, come to think of it I don't control anything, so what's the point in trying to make progress?" I'm all for accepting the limits to our control but I prefer to do it in a way that enhances our ability to make progress. No doubt some of my experiences in Mali will help me to further develop my views on this subject!