Those Shores

15 Aug

Although it’s easy to forget that anyone’s keeping track, Peace Corps volunteers are required to fill out and turn in quarterly progress reports detailing their projects, successes, individuals reached, etc.

There’s also a section called “Tell Your Story” that asks you to rate your level of integration from a drop down menu and free write about your successes, challenges, and lessons learned.  Honestly, the completion of this section is usually dependent upon a few times of opening the file, looking at the blank spaces, rolling my eyes and closing it again.  Seemingly always in a sour mood at the start, once they get me talking I generally enjoy the process (get me talking…who would’ve thought?!)

Anyways, below was my entry in the Lessons Learned section of my latest reporting form:

I recently read an article in the New York Times about the Puritan cultural roots that are still present today in American society.  Puritans “believed in predestination and viewed success as a sign of salvation. This led to belief in success as a path to salvation: hard work and good deeds would bring rewards, in life and after.”  These beliefs helped lay the foundation for the thinking that one’s work determined whether they were a successful individual or not.  So many of the points rung true with all of the self-reflection I’ve been doing lately—identifying that my self-worth is tightly tied to my work and my ideas and very dependent upon receiving affirmations from the outside for them.  In Paraguay, genuine affirmations of my work and my ideas have been few and far between.  The resulting insecurity caused me to frantically search for a project that would be so successful Paraguayans would have to be impressed by it— yet the compliments never came.

Reading this article I began to analyze the religious roots that affect Paraguayan culture.  All of the “Si Dios quiere y La Virgen permite” that pepper their speech speak to the lack of the individual’s role in all sorts of life and historic events.  If God wants it I will come to that meeting tomorrow, if the Virgin permits it my crop will come up, if God wants it we will improve the national failing education system of Paraguay, and the list goes on.  The active removal of themselves as key variables in these life equations leaves them waxing equally nostalgic for the wealth of the country prior to the Triple Alliance War and the days of their son’s childhood when he behaved well and followed rules.  It is my belief that it has also affected their sense of urgency and personal accountability on projects and tasks—which seen from the perspective of a North American often seems as if neither of these things exist.

Coincidentally, this reflection was met with a knock on my door by the president and vice president of my youth group, two of the hardest workers I’ve met in my town.  We were in the middle of selling tickets for a raffle to raise money for our next project and they were not happy with the performance of their peers.  “I don’t understand how they can just not work! They need to choose to work, to finish high school, go to university, have a house and a family…to be successful they need to work.”

This is a very different sentiment than I generally experience on a day-to-day basis, so I told them all about the Puritan rumblings in my brain.  Together we decided that there were lots of definitions for success in Paraguay: good-looking children, an ability to live off of the land and your animals, closeness with your family, a well-kept house, maintaining family and national traditions, the success of your political party, living a religiously devout life, and the list goes on.  I do like that work is a considered factor of success in the United States, but don’t think it should be the only thing.  In the same way that I think it’s healthy that Paraguayans choose to not shoulder the weight of the world, but don’t think it should be a blanket response to problems.  As I take steps to find my own middle of the road solution I think it was an important realization that my quest to be validated according to my own cultural values would be impossible in Paraguay.  It also begs the question of why this validation would need to come from the outside, instead of from within.  Work to cultivate this ability in myself only seems appropriate in a place where self-validation may be the only road to my current definition of contentment and success.  While I hope to achieve this in Paraguay I think this ability will be equally valuable to carry with me to the United States after my service.

How do you define success?

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