Do good? Or be good?

Peace Corps gives one a fair amount of reading time. I have my usual 8 books started, but this time around, maybe I’ll actually finish some. (Though maybe not many – Ulysses and The Brothers Karamazov are on that list.) Anyhow, I was reading through Walden (an appropriate read for being in the middle of nowhere), and Thoreau makes the following point:

Men say, practically, Begin where you are and such as you are, without aiming mainly to become of more worth, and with kindness aforethought go about doing good. If I were to preach at all in this strain, I should say rather, Set about being good. As if the sun should stop when he had kindled his fires up to the splendor of a moon or a star of the sixth magnitude, and go about like a Robin Goodfellow, peeping in every cottage window, inspiring lunatics, and tainting meats, and making darkness visible, instead of steadily increasing his genial heat and beneficence till he is of such brightness that no mortal can look him in the face, and then, and in the meanwhile too, going about the world in his own orbit, doing it good, or rather, as a truer philosophy has discovered, the world going about him getting good.

Still mulling this over. But it does seem like my worst (and most ineffective) days here are when I am here to do good, to make a difference in the world, to be “selfless,” and that conversely I seem to be more pleasant, productive, and effective when I feel like maybe I’m being selfish and thinking too much about/taking out too much time for myself. Though I also think it is more true to say that trying to be selfless is often disastrous; being “selfish” can still just be non-quotes selfish. Thoughts?


Reprieve from Ennui on the Mountain

Today was one of those days which reminded me why I actually joined Peace Corps. It gets tiring being in a struggling primary school all of the time, and it is all to easy to identify the flaws seen there with the culture at large. As of yesterday, I was seriously ready to wring someone’s neck over “cultural differences” which often amount to empty formalism, hypocrisy, or just plain nosiness.

So it was good that I had some work scheduled in a different location today. I talked with different people, including a friend in town whom I haven’t seen for a while. I practiced isiZulu, far more than I have been recently, and even started the first line in my isiZulu translation of the Iliad (start taking bets on whether I make it past line 3). I made some teachers laugh when I did a traditional dance to Juluka. I started to set up some programs which I want to begin next year. I walked through my amazingly beautiful mountain village with all of its hills, valleys, and summer verdure. I greeted everyone I saw. It basically felt like how a cross-cultural experience working in a village is supposed to feel like, at least in my mind – and I’ve had almost none of that for a while now. So a nice refresher, and a foretaste of what it might be like when I start a more stable schedule next year. (Though of course, round, aaand round, and round, and round we go.)

It’s enough that even hearing deafening hail pounding on my tin roof and falling on me (yes, I am inside) isn’t enough to depress me.


Snails see the benefits, the beauty in every inch – The Format

What does it mean to live in the present? In one sense, it is seemingly trivial – where else would I live? In another sense, it seems patently false – if you don’t plan for the future, things can (and often do) go horribly wrong.

But in any case, the present isn’t always great. “Just being” is wonderful when hip-hop dancing with brothers, but not so much when stuck in front of a classroom of fighting 2nd-graders who don’t understand a word you say.

However, I was reminded today through a song of a particularly explosive relationship (perhaps not the worst metaphor for Peace Corps service, from what I’ve seen and heard). A person I loved, missed, hated and despised. The best times turned into the worst, and the worst into the best – and this strange hall of mirrors goes on with all manner of refraction and distortion.

More than that: the truth of that relationship simply is the myriad reflection. Were those times good? Bad? These questions seem ill-formed. Things happened. Bunches of present moments happened. They had some dominant feeling at their times, but have developed all sorts of complex meanings since, many completely unforeseen and bearing small resemblance to what I felt then. At no point do those meanings become exhausted, whether or not I am conscious of those moments any longer.

I can’t stand certain behaviours in others, I’ve recognized faults in myself which I’ve worked on, I have memories of things to hope for, I have memories of things to avoid. And all of these changes have altered the way I’ve handled other events, which has produced more changes, and so on.

We live in the present because that’s what there is. I’m not saying that maybe I should be optimistic about what I can do here. I’m saying that any given estimation of success is only one dimension of the present amongst many – and that many of the dimensions by which I will measure today have not yet been seen. Whatever happens, I and others will doubtlessly see any number of different facets in the time to come.

So that was a nice after-school meditation to get my mind off my stressors. No matter how much I want to just throw my hands up and storm out, I know that I will look back at things in a year and see them differently – and “differently” is better than “about-to-wring-necks.” Let’s see whether I can maintain it in any number of face-palming episodes tomorrow. But in any case, tomorrow will happen whatever I bring to it.

Daily Dialogue

Here’s a taste of what goes through my head here:

  • Voice 1: I’m here to change the world!
  • Voice 2: And how exactly do you plan to do that? Look – everything is stacked against education here. Teachers are dragged away for exams and gov’t workshops, the students have never been taught how to learn or think for themselves, the gov’t won’t spend a dime to improve the schools and even takes away insufficient resources, and those are just the first few things to come to mind. You can’t change that in 2 years.
  • V1: But I can do something small at least. There’s got to be something I can do to help this village progress.
  • V2: Progress? Hasn’t this village seen enough of that? Isn’t that the excuse used to place them where they are today? “European culture is progress; Africans are backward.” Doesn’t their culture work for them? Why do you have to come in and break up their sense of community with “individual responsibility” and “critical thinking”, as if they had no tools of the sort? Wouldn’t that just introduce a new set of problems?
  • V1: I’m pretty sure that the high rape statistics are not what “works for” the women here, nor does the 40% unemployment rate “work for” anyone seeking work. A gov’t filled with corruption and nepotism certainly isn’t working for the people. There’s nothing sacrosanct about culture; I’ll try to take things from the culture here that I find worthwhile, like the people’s generosity and kindness, and try to provide an example of living without blind support of tradition and authority and without a fixation on forms without substance.
  • V2: Regardless, what do you think that you can possibly do?
  • V1: Some people have actually accomplished great strides for human rights. Dr. MLK Jr., Nelson Mandela, Susan B. Anthony, Gandhi, Dorothy Day….
  • V2: They were people born at exactly the right time in exactly the right circumstances, who were all better people than you.
  • V1: I don’t have to be a great mover and shaker in the world. Those people were who they were only because of the people surrounding them.
  • V2: And many other people whom history forgot tried their utmost to make the world better. But circumstances swallowed them and their work. How many unsuccessful revolutions have their been, which only fed a despot’s power? How many PCVs left behind civil unrest or just plain apathy, with nothing to show for it?
  • V1: It’s like trying to jump across a chasm. If you don’t believe you’re going to make it, you probably won’t. You have to believe in order to have a chance.
  • V2: But you can believe in yourself 110% and have every ounce of passion, and still fall into the abyss. Belief doesn’t make things happen, and you know the odds you’re up against. Most of the problems have to do with other people and organizations, and you can never control others.
  • V1: What am I supposed to do? Sit back and do nothing?
  • V2: Live in the moment! Enjoy yourself! Stop thinking and planning so much!
  • V1: Sounds great! Except for the fact that that sort of thinking is precisely the problem I see around here. Nobody thinks about the future – so we remain stuck with high vehicle accident rates because people “live in the moment” and don’t think through their driving habits. We have families squandering what little money they have to “live in the now” while never saving a rand. Education for both learners and educators consists of passing the buck to next year – because really, what’s the harm? The loss of a learner’s education, it turns out, but the person stuck on “just being” can’t fix that. People hold onto beliefs that make them feel safe and secure here and now, despite these beliefs preventing necessary change. “Living in the moment” is escapism and laziness with a facade of spirituality.
  • V2: That’s a strawman, and you know it. There’s a difference between making the most of the present moment, and not reflecting on oneself at all.
  • Voice 3: You two should go dance and listen to music, since you’ve had this conversation every single day without resolving it. V2, you can have a chance to relax and forget things; V1, you can exercise and be in a better mood to do your job.

I hope that nobody is looking for closure to the dialogue, since I don’t have any yet.

Peace Corps, Guilt, and Keeping On

I recently read this article: Peace Corps Guilt. It articulates a lot of things I’ve felt here and part of the motivation for why I joined PC. As a philosopher, though, I obsess over these sorts of issues, and I wanted to work through some ways of dealing with these issues together with my audience (of 1? 2?).

I think that the morality presented in the article carries with it a residue of the concept of “sin”: that we really are supposed to be morally perfect, but fall short of that. But I don’t subscribe to any religion that endorses sin, and neither does Peter Singer from what I know. It certainly is not a necessary part of utilitarianism, Singer’s ethical project (in sum: seek the greatest happiness and least pain for the greatest number). So why not say that we start off with a bunch of drives and desires and whatnot, some conducive to human flourishing (of ourselves and others), and some not? We start off somewhere low, then make it a task to morally cultivate and improve ourselves.

So maybe our ultimate ideals should be shaped by moral perfection, but there’s no reason to expect it of ourselves now.

In line with that, I constantly struggle with the fact that I am basically a biological machine. I cannot command myself to do any task I see to be rationally fit. I break down, I get crabby, I have bad days and even weeks. I get horribly depressed and occasionally well-nigh useless when I see just how much is wrong with the world. I need to learn how to hack the system, as it were, and get it to work for me, within the constraints I’ve been given. And these constraints will differ from those of different people. I personally do not care about Lady Gaga concerts, but I sure need my downtime – and when I don’t get it, everyone around me knows. Some people need optimistic affirmations; Pollyanna-ism makes me want to claw people’s eyes out, since they obviously aren’t using them to look at the world. (No frustration or anything.)

Of course, we should stretch our limits. And moral ideals do give us goals to work toward. When I get complacent, I do need someone to shake me up and maybe make me feel a bit guilty. But once I get moving, I also need to recognize that reality is what it is. I don’t have free will untrammeled by nature. I do not have some primal perfection I should already have.

Reality is imperfect and often blind. I often think of the laryngeal nerve of the giraffe as a metaphor: It climbs 15 feet up the neck to come back to where it started. Why? Because orignally it had a straight route, way back in fish. As necks started to evolve, the nerve started to move step by step with the vertebrae, as at each given step it was easier for the nerve to grow a little than to reroute (of course, I am being somewhat imprecise for the sake of exposition, but the readers who care can clean it up as an exercise). By the time we reach giraffes, this inefficiency has reached comical proportions; but evolution still can only make small changes one step at a time rather than to switch to the overall best route.

That’s nature. That’s human society and human beings, and our own individual battles with our nature and upbringing. Everything comes in little bits, and no one ever sees the big picture clearly, if at all. And so of course we royally screw things up. It’s tragic. But it’s what we got, so let’s make the little changes that we can actually see in front of us – because that nerve might be inefficient, but the giraffe would be dead if the nerve didn’t change something at least.