There was a time when I held great expectations for my Peace Corps service. I'm not here to say they aren't being fulfilled. Instead, I want to talk a little bit about how the definition of "great" has changed over the last 22 months of service.
I wrote a post about low expectations a long, long time ago. It was impassioned and justified and logical and naïve. It came from a day during training when we were told to "lower our expectations" in order to survive. I hated the idea. It turned into a joke for all the PCVs: 'what, you thought we'd get something done at this meeting? Lower your expectations!'
The other week, I was walking past a restaurant on a city corner. Banners hung from every corner and window advertising the sale of my favorite, although difficult to find, food - a bean soup called guandúl. I glanced at the banners and immediately, reflexively, thought to myself, 'nah, I don't believe they have it.' Not until later did I have to laugh at myself for thinking this - but I still didn't think that the restaurant necessarily had the soup.
Lowering my expectations has become a double edged sword. In some ways, it protects me. As a PCV -maybe due to the public, foreign, outside-comfort-zones sort of life we generally lead/work we often do - life reactions tend to be a bit exaggerated. On bad days, tiny setbacks can cause reactions tantamount to a breakdown.
Say I'd gone to that restaurant on a bad day thinking to cheer myself up with guandúl. My 22 months of experience here tells me that despite the signs, there's a decent chance they won't have the soup. And then what would happen? I'll be sad times a hundred, because it would have been a long sweaty walk to get there with no reward. TEARS!
Then again, if I go and there IS guandúl, how awesome would that be to a) have a great lunch on a bad day and b)know there's a slightly out-of-the-way restaurant that might actually reliably carry my favorite local food? And yet, months later, I haven't had the inclination to try.
Low expectations means that when the local airline I'm flying tells me that my flight is delayed 7 hours, it's okay. What, I thought my flight would be on time?! When school is canceled and the lessons I planned for dashed for the third time that week - well, why would I ever assume we'd have class anyway? I didn't expect it, so I had a contingency plan in place, whether that's go get ice cream(!) Or, head to the office to do some other work.
This attitude might seem a bit cynical. It can be detrimental, too--for instance, it can definitely lower my motivation to do work (since there probably won't be class, is it even worth it to plan?). Perhaps I've missed opportunities because of it.
But here's the deal. Beyond allowing for day-to-day mental survival (not always a small thing), there's this really cool effect of having low expectations: It means that the little things are wonderful. It means that when the owner of my favorite veggie restaurant gives me a free cookie, it makes my day. When a Colombian friend calls to say hi and check in and spends almost 10 minutes on the phone with me (no one uses phone minutes here!) it makes that day plus a few. When I stepped off the plane in Providence and heard birds singing, I almost cried for the joy of it. When lessons at school go well or there's a productive meeting with my teachers, that means the week was a good one.
And when something big goes well, something that I drew upon my previous months of learning and experience to complete - a girls camp, say, or a month in Providence - well, I'm Godzilla-sized with happiness. I can taste it even now.
There's nothing like going through an extended period of living outside your comfort zone to see where the Things That Matter versus Things That Don't Matters shake out. In part two of this I'll tell you all about my personal toddler-style "how I know what I really care about" barometer…
Although in some ways I'm looking forward to when my current life of crazy contrast gets on a bit more of an even keel (hey, COS), I hope that I'm still able to find so much joy in the small things - that a small gift from a stranger is invaluable. That seeing a wide blue sky brings bubbles of joy. That a kind conversation with someone makes me smile fit to burst. That hard-earned accomplishments are truly seen as life milestones.
I have to believe that in four months when I step off this rollercoaster called PCV service, I'll have learned not just invaluable lessons about who I am, what I want to do with my life, and that I've done some sort of significant work here - but that I will remember to treasure the small things, and cling to them - and remember to be that person who gives these moments to others, too. Because you never know what expectations they had for that day, either.
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