At the Ministry of Meaning

For the next few weeks my blog will feature a fictional work in seven “chapters” that I call The Ministry Series. It’s both a Kafkaesque “Grail Quest” and a social satire, set in Centre City. I wrote it while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kingston, Jamaica which, being the capital city, is rife with Ministries, Bureaus, Secretariats and such. Among my literary influences were Franz Kafka (content), J. P. Donleavy (style), and Terry Gilliam’s movies, “Brazil” and “The Fisher King.”

 

Call me K.  I live in Centre City, the capital of Homeland, and always have. I have lived alone for as long as I can remember. I suppose I once had a family, but I’ve lost touch. The city, you see, is vast; and the desperate press and bustle of commerce and government regulation, the mass of faces that I pass in the streets, in the hallways, have somehow eroded my memory. I had friends once, I’m sure of that. And I must have had a job, although I haven’t gone to work for as long as I can remember. I forget how long I can remember.

But for as long as that is, I’ve been occupied – preoccupied you might say – with but one thing: finding the Great Secret, thereby recovering the Meaning that my life once surely had. I know there is a Great Secret, I feel it. There is a Hidden Tradition, and I know I’m not the first to seek it. I even found a book titled The Great Secret. It was blank.

So every day, a dog on the trail of Truth, I haunt the huge hives that house the bureaus, the directorates, the secretariats and the ministries that are the skeleton of our civilization. How do I live? Through some bureaucratic error I get a check every month, issued by the Ministry of Mystery; so maybe I used to work there. Only . . . I can find no evidence that there is, or ever has been, a Ministry of Mystery.

When I first realized that I had lost my Meaning, and set out on my solitary search through the labyrinth of government agencies to find it, the Ministry of Meaning was a logical first stop. I found the address in the Directory of Directorates, Bureaus, Ministries and Secretariats, and got there an hour before closing time. There were few ahead of me in the waiting area, and it wasn’t long before one of the several clerks at the long, partitioned service counter said “Next,” meaning me. I stepped up to the counter and looked the young clerk in his empty eyes.

“Good afternoon,” I said. “I’ve, um, sort of lost the Meaning in my life, or maybe forgotten it, more like. It’s really rather discouraging, and I . . . I wondered if you could, ah, help me. Please?”

“Life,” the clerk said lifelessly. “L. Volume 12.” So saying, he turned in his swivel chair and ran a finger down the spines of a row of numbered books on a shelf behind the counter, then swiveled back, Volume 12 of the Meaning Manual in hand. He opened it, riffled through the pages, then ran his finger down a column of headings. Every fourth or fifth heading he read aloud, “da-dum, da-dum” ing his way through the interim items.

“Labels. . . labor . . . lachrymation. . . lamentation. . . literalism. . . laughter. . . laxity. . . leadership. . . learning. . . legendry. . . lemming migration. . . levity. . . liability. . . libel. . . liberalism. . . lies. . . (da-dum, da-dum, etc.) limitations.” He looked up. “I’m sorry, sir. There’s no meaning listed for ‘life’.”

“But. . . surely life has to mean something!”

“Not necessarily; not according to the manual.” He smiled blankly and tried not to sound condescending. “Look. Surely you wouldn’t suggest that everything has to mean something. We here at the Ministry take it as a given that some things just are. I mean, does every stone or star have to mean something?”

“But. . . how about you? Doesn’t life mean anything to you?”

“Nothing comes to mind, sir.”

“But, I mean, um, hasn’t anyone else ever come here and asked about the Meaning of life?”

“Not that I recall, sir.”

I was desperate. “Ah, now you must know a lot about Meaning, since you work here. Just speculation, now – if life did have a meaning, what do you think it might be?”

“That would just be meaningless speculation, sir. If life had meaning, it would be in the manual, now wouldn’t it. And I’m not a Licensed Philosopher. We do, however, have one on the staff. In the Consumer Relations Department.”

“No, thank you. One more question, then I won’t trouble you any longer. Have you ever heard of the Great Secret?”

“No, I’m sure I’ve never. I suggest that you consult the Secretariat of Secrecy.”

I thanked him and left, musing over mankind’s manifest meaninglessness, alone as a soul-less stone.

Authenticity and congruence

This a continuation of my last post, “How to be more like you,” in which I wrote about phoniness vs. authenticity. Most of us come by the inauthenticity that Fritz Perls described as phoniness quite  honestly, via the process of socialization. As children, we learn from the adult role models in our lives, and we’re often taught to be inauthentic. The template for prescribed phony behavior might be “politeness,” or religion, or social expectations about “correct  behavior” or even “correct feelings.” I’ve known people who were abused and/or  neglected by their parents who still, as adults, felt guilty about not loving them the way they “should.” Many children are taught who they are “supposed to” love, from grandpa to God. Genuine love can’t be forced.

A kiss that is anything other than an expression of affection or love or sexual passion is a phony kiss. Jane may not have even liked Aunt Sadie, but her parents taught her to give her a kiss anyway, whenever she visited. Children are often given admonitions such as: “Don’t cry! You’re a boy!” and “Don’t you get angry at me, young lady!” and “Of course you love him; he’s your grandfather!”

Some people have jobs that require them to act cheerful, no matter what they’re really feeling. Behavior arising from authentic feelings might be judged by others as impolite or inappropriate in certain situations. We’ve all been in circumstances where we felt the need to hide our true feelings; but some people go through life feeling that way every day. They have their reasons.

Con men, sociopaths and bullshitters are purposefully inauthentic. Others have learned to habitually cover up their true feelings; it’s their default mode. One of the ways I would confront a client who was putting on an act in therapy was, “You’re always on stage, aren’t you?” The look in their eyes (busted!) told me that I was on target, and that this was something they needed to know that other people could see through. People whose default mode is authenticity know themselves better than people who constantly put on an act to win approval. They are also more secure and self-accepting. I know this from personal experience, as I used to be a people pleaser, myself. My phoniness arose from feelings of insecurity.

A related concept that was important to me as a therapist was congruence. There are two kinds of congruence. One has to do with they way you come across when communicating. If someone being threatened says to his antagonist, “You don’t scare me” in a soft, tremulous voice, with body language that indicates fear, his verbal message won’t be believed. It’s incongruent with his other modes of communication. If someone says “I’M NOT ANGRY!” loudly, with fists clenched and an aggressive posture, he’s giving incongruent messages. When a person’s words are matched by her vocal tone, facial expression and body language, her message is congruent. People who are seen as charismatic are highly congruent communicators.

As a therapist with training in gestalt theory, I became very good at spotting subtle incongruities in therapy. In gestalt therapy, incongruent messages get challenged by the therapist. If a client claims (incongruently) that it really doesn’t bother her when her husband calls her stupid, the therapist might ask her to say the opposite: “It really bothers me when my husband calls me stupid!” (“But it really doesn’t bother me!” “Try saying it anyway.”) This technique is very effective in getting clients to recognize their true feelings, which often rise to the surface as the client repeats the opposite of their initial rationalized statement.

The other kind of congruence is role congruence. Do you act like a different person in your different life roles, or would family members and close friends recognize you as the same person they know, if they saw you at work? Obviously, some jobs – like a drill sergeant at a military boot camp – require you to take on a badass role that is (one hopes) incongruent with how he behaves in other situations. But under most circumstances a congruent person is recognizably the same person as a worker, a spouse, a parent and a friend. Incongruent persons are role-bound, and might be a tyrant at home and a reasonable person at work – or the other way around. Congruent people are authentically themselves in all the roles in their lives.

The intrinsic reward for being yourself – warts and all – is that when people who know you give you messages (feedback) about who you are, they’re revealing the things you need to hear, to be self-aware. I’ve written before about the paradox of identity. You can’t have self-knowledge in a social vacuum. We need other people who know us, in order to know who we “really are.” They’ll tell us, and if there’s some disagreement, it’s all grist for the mill. A consensus will emerge over time about who you are.

If you were living alone on a desert island, like Robinson Crusoe, how could you possibly know what kind of person you are. How could you know if you’re generous or stingy, witty or dull? We depend on other people in our lives to have an accurate sense of our own identity. Being authentic and congruent helps us to know who we really are, and what we might like to change about who we are.

Your “self” is either a rigid construct – “that’s just who I am!” – or a work in progress. Whatever your age.

 

How to be more like you

My title for this post is ironic. How could I possibly know who you are or how you should be “more yourself”?  But surely you’ve known some people who sincerely believed that the world would be a better place if other people were “more like them.” When people think this way, they are probably not  referencing the “self'” that is known to others – warts and all –  but rather an idealized, cherished self-image. I believe that all of us have a cherished self-image that doesn’t necessarily coincide with the consensus image of ourselves as others know us. When you hear someone say something about you and your reaction is “I’m not like that!”, you’ve probably identified a piece of your cherished self-image.

Attachment to this cherished self-image is especially strong in people who have tried throughout their lives to live up to others’ expectations of them – parents or extended parental entities  such as church and culture. Many of us are taught how we “should” or “shouldn’t” feel in this or that situation. This attachment can also be strong in people who have tried hard to shape themselves in reaction to “parental” expectations, i.e. “I refuse to be who my parents (or the church or the State) want me to be.” I’ve known quite a few parents whose cherished self-images kept them from seeing that they were dealing with their own children in just the same dysfunctional ways that their own parents had dealt with them. When you’ve sworn to yourself, “I’ll never do that with my children,” it’s often hard to recognize when you do.

Each of us – even those with low self-esteem – is the hero of our own personal drama, because we all live at the center of our perceived world, and none of us can be completely objective about ourselves. Our “heroic self” may wear the mask of the conquering hero or the rescuer or the wronged victim. But this heroic self is just as much an artificial construct as any image of ourselves projected onto us by others. I remember an epiphany I had as a young man. Seeing my reflection in a mirror, I thought “That’s who they think I am!”

One’s true self isn’t a thing, fixed and immutable, but is best seen as an evolutionary process, a work in progress. Buckminster Fuller put it this way: “I seem to be a verb.” Rather than trying to nail down some finished portrait of one’s self, I think that it is more helpful to have a picture in mind of who you are today, in the here-and-now of your experience and behavior. Your actions, not your thoughts, ultimately define you as the unique person you are.

A concept that was important to me as a psychotherapist was authenticity. In studying gestalt therapy in grad school, I became aware that many of my habitual behaviors were what gestalt guru Fritz Perls called “phony.” I was a people pleaser, always trying to guess what was expected of me in each situation and to behave in ways  that were attempts to please or impress the people around me. I realized that I wanted everyone to like me – even if I didn’t especially like them. But, to the extent that I was phony, if someone seemed to like me, what they liked was my act, not me.

I knew that if I was going to be a good therapist, I had to become more spontaneous and authentic – even if that meant that some people wouldn’t like me or approve of my actions. I stopped making phony excuses for myself, like saying “I really have to leave now,” when I really just wanted to leave. I stopped rehearsing for social occasions such as parties. I learned to walk into a roomful of people with an “empty mind,” primed for spontaneity. I wanted to get to know the person behind the masks that I wore. Some people may have seen me as blunt or curt, or even rude, as I worked on becoming “more myself.” I knew that not everyone liked me, and that was okay. The work that I did on myself enabled me to help therapy clients to identify and confront their own inauthentic behaviors, and to work on changing them.

Gestalt therapy is especially effective for working with people who want to discover their authentic selves. Some gestalt techniques (which I described in a prior post) serve to unmask phony roles that people play, leaving them bereft of their usual defenses, and open to sudden insights. Fritz Perls is perhaps best known for what is called the Gestalt Prayer: ” I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you and I am I, and if by chance we find one another, it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped.”

More about authenticity, and the related concept of congruence, in my next post.

 

Quotebooks

When I was in grad school, studying psychology, my first wife and I (who are still good friends) kept a spiral notebook in our bathroom for guests to record thoughts and quotes. Some of them, inspired by what they’d read, brought the “bathroom book” out to the kitchen or living room to make their own entries. I still have the original book, and one of the final entries was, “I hope this book starts a movement.” Clearly, it has not, but it got me started.

I liked so many entries in the bathroom book that it fueled my subsequent habit of keeping quotebooks. (I’m sure that my father’s ability to recite poetry and quote Shakespeare had something to do with it, too.) I developed the habit of copying meaningful quotes in blank “anything books,” for future perusal. Not only does that give me easy access to my favorite quotes, as a thinker and a writer; but over the years I given unique, personalized quotebooks to people I love, hand-written in anything books, collated from my own collection.

As a wordsmith, I constantly learn from other writers. Keeping quotebooks has helped me to grasp concepts and to refine my own craft, in expressing my thoughts and beliefs. The quotes I record are from recognized thinkers and writers, and from people I’ve never heard of before. I have full pages of quotes from people like Lily Tomlin and George Carlin, various quotes from luminaries like Albert Einstein and Oscar Wilde, and pithy or funny observations by a wide variety of writers. I have long quotes and short poems, too. I sometimes embellish quotes with simple drawings. I illustrated Howard Nemerov’s “You don’t have ideas; ideas have you.” with a drawing of a lit-up lightbulb.

Having introduced the concept of quotebooks, I’ll share some of my favorite quotes – perhaps to seed your own quotebook. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “. . . make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in your reading have been to you like a blast of triumph.” I invite you to make your own Bible. You can hand-write it or store the quotes digitally. Here are some of my own favorite short quotes, in no special order:

“Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.” – Henry David Thoreau

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” – Oscar Wilde

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” – Mahatma Ghandi

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.” – Ursula Le Guin

“Unless some one like you/ cares a whole awful lot,/nothing is going to get better./ It’s not.” – Dr.Seuss

“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” – Dorothy Parker

“Life shrinks or expands according to one’s courage.” – Anais Nin

“Everyone takes the limits of his own vision for the limits of the world.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

“A poem should not mean, but be.” – Archibald MacLeish

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche’

“Soft is stronger than hard, water stronger than rock, love stronger than violence.” – Hermann Hesse

“The reward of patience is patience.” – Saint Augustine

“Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.” – anonymous

“Life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.” – Soren Kierkegaard

“Renunciation is not giving up the things of the world; it is accepting that they go away.” – zen precept

“Beware of the naked person who offers you clothing.” – African proverb

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as if it were a nail.” – Abraham Maslow

“Paranoia is having all the facts.” – William Burroughs

“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” – Edward Abbey

“Discipline is knowing what you want.” – anonymous

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” – Oscar Wilde

“I caught a happy virus last night/when I was out singing beneath the stars./It’s remarkably contagious./So kiss me.” – Hafiz

On Mysticism

First, a few words about what mysticism is not. Calling the Marvel Comics character Doctor Strange “Master of the Mystic Arts” is inaccurate; he should actually be called “Master of the Magical Arts.” There’s nothing magical or supernatural about mysticism, as I understand it. Since mysticism is about union with God, this may seem counter-intuitive or paradoxical. I suggested in my last post that the potential for mystical experience seems to be hard-wired in our brains, and elicited by certain identifiable stimuli. That means it’s natural, not supernatural. I’m an agnostic and, to me, the  question of whether there “is” or “is not” a God is a matter of definition. If you say that God is love, then I believe in God. If you say that God has a gender or a preferred name, I don’t. I believe that if there’s a God, it’s beyond human comprehension.

Mystics are people who seek, or experience, union with the Divine. Some religious people who have a mystical experience might call it a religious experience and, for them, it is. (I don’t have the philosophical authority to label or judge other peoples’ anomalous experiences.) But I’ve read accounts of atheists who remained atheists after having an experience of Divine union. The existence of mystical experience isn’t proof of the existence of any given deity. Not everyone is going to have a mystical  experience in their lifetime. Many people – even atheists – have reported having an experience of the Divine while under the influence of psychedelic substances such as LSD, psilocybin or mescaline. Back in my hippie days, a common question asked of people who had just  come down from a psychedelic trip was, “Did you see God?” It was a popular jest.

Accounts of mystical experiences have been recorded in cultures all around the world,  throughout history. Triggers include physical agony or ecstasy, asceticism/sensory deprivation, continuous prayer and fasting, deep meditation, and the ingestion of high doses of psychedelic substances. Indeed, mystical experiences are so common on psychedelic drugs that some people refer to them as entheogens – “God-inducing” substances. I’ve had mystical experiences, and don’t think of them as proof that there “is” a God that has a name. Like psychedelic consciousness, mystical experiences are ineffable: words can’t do justice to them. My experiences haven’t involved identifiable deities from any religion, but rather a profound feeling of one-ness with the universe, or being in the presence of something holy, that’s impossible to put into words.

One of the great Christian mystics, Meister Eckhart, a fourteenth-century Dominican friar, taught that we can – if we do the requisite preparation – experience God directly, within ourselves. The Roman Catholic establishment of the day considered the teaching heretical. However, Saint Francis of Assisi had written something similar: “What you are looking for is what is looking.” Centuries later, philosopher and atheist Friedrich Nietzsche had a darker metaphor for this idea, writing “When you gaze into the Abyss, the Abyss gazes back at you.”

The key to union with the Divine, according to Meister Eckhart, was letting go of all worldly things, all desires and preconceptions – even one’s conception of God. Paradoxically, in order to know God directly, one must first un-know everything one thinks about God. The Divine is unknowable in the usual sense of knowledge. He wrote, “We should learn not to give God any name, for God is above names and ineffable,” warning that “if you think of anything he might be, he is not that.” He also  wrote, “Only the hand that erases can write the true thing,” and “the eye by which I see God is the same eye by which God sees me.” Among the things a seeker must abandon is his or her conception of self. Meister Eckhart taught that from this emptiness, this silence, one’s soul could be re-born in the direct experience of the Divine.

This message is echoed in the mystical teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, Vedanta Hinduism, Jewish Cabalism, Sufism, and other spiritual traditions. Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki called Meister Eckhart “the one Zen thinker of the West.” In modern terms, the direct experience of the Divine requires the annihilation of the ego. One seeker wrote, “At my worst, I see myself being at the center of the universe; at my best, I see myself as one cell in the body of the Divine.”

The poetry of Sufi mystics such as Rumi and Hafiz reflects this point of view over and over in its metaphors.  Rumi likens himself to a hollow reed made into a flute by the breath of God. He wrote, “We are like lutes once held by the Beloved. Being away from his divine body fully explains all yearning.” Hafiz wrote, “I have learned so much from God/that I can no longer call myself/ a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew. . . .Love has befriended Hafiz so completely/it has turned to ash and freed me/of every concept and image/my mind has ever known.”

In my last post I wrote about the Vedanta Hindu concept of Brahman: there is nothing that is not God. It is expressed in the Sanskrit affirmation tat twam asi – “thou art That.” (i.e. You are one with the Divine.) I’ll close on a light note, with a short verse I’ve attributed to my alter ego writer and philosopher, Philbo T. Woldercan:

You want the key to the Mystery?                                                                                                       The Holy Grail?                                                                                                                                      The essence of the Buddha?                                                                                                                 You’ve known it all along, Bozo!                                                                                                         (tag) You’re IT.

Epiphanies and peak experiences

In previous posts I’ve written about the mystery of consciousness and non-ordinary states of consciousness. In this post I’ll examine epiphanies – an ordinary, though not everyday, state of mind – and peak experiences.

As a retired psychotherapist, I think that some people are resistant to insight; but anyone who is capable of introspection will sometimes experience epiphanies. These are sudden bursts of new awareness, insight, or intuitive understanding of something in our lives, often in the form of “so that’s why I/you/he/she/it ________!” In an older sense, the word can also mean sudden awareness of the presence of a deity or some other supernatural entity; but there’s nothing supernatural about insight epiphanies. I’ve witnessed many moments of epiphany in therapy sessions, and I’ve had a few, myself. Epiphanies can lead to changes in attitude and behavior.

Peak experiences – a term coined by Abraham Maslow – transcend mere epiphanies. Like epiphanies they are generally spontaneous, unplanned experiences. Some, but not all, fall into the category of mystical experiences. Apparently, not all people have them. They can’t be reliably induced, like hypnotic or psychedelic states of consciousness, but certain conditions may trigger them or cultivate their likelihood. Athletes may experience them when they’re “in the zone” and performing at the peak of their abilities, and I imagine that Alex Honnold had one he free climbed El Capitan, in Yosemite. When peak experiences occur, they can be quite profound and moving. They can be life-changing.

I’ll give some examples from my own life. My longest-lasting peak experience was a day in my youth when I solo hiked 25 miles of wilderness trails at Bandolier National Monument, in New Mexico. It was the most challenging hike of my life, but I’ve never felt more strong, confident, self-reliant and alive. The best way I can describe it is that I felt like I belonged in that wilderness, as surely as every rock and tree and rabbit that I saw. I got back to the campsite at twilight, rubber-legged with fatigue, but exhilarated.

Other peak experiences I’ve had involved a profound sense of oneness with the universe, or the sense of being in the presence of something “holy.” One occurred on a winter day when I was living on the second story of a Victorian-era house in Talladega, Alabama. There were deciduous trees in all directions surrounding the house, their branches now bare. I suddenly found myself serenaded by the sound of raucous  bird cries, and looking out a window, I saw all of the tree branches in sight covered with black birds. (I wasn’t a birder back then, so I can’t tell you what species.) I ran from window to window, discovering rows of black birds on every limb of the surrounding trees. I wept for joy, bathing in the sound and awed by the sights I saw, looking out each window – at one with what I was witnessing.

Another “mystical” peak experience occurred while I was working. I was employed as a mental health counselor in rural Alabama. An elementary school teacher of “homebound” disabled students asked me to accompany her to the home of one of her students, to evaluate her learning potential and see if I could make any recommendations. The girl was nine or ten, blind, spastic, and severely developmentally disabled.

The family was poor, and lived in a house in the woods – simply furnished but immaculately clean. The girl’s mother took us to the parlor, where the girl – dressed in pajamas as I recall – was strapped to a wooden armchair to prevent self-injury. Her unseeing eyes darted around in response to sounds; her head and limbs jerked spasmodically; her mouth was slack and her face expressionless. I felt inadequate to the task at hand, but watched intently as the teacher interacted with the child – holding her hands, stroking her cheek with a finger, and talking to her. I saw no signs of comprehension, and the girl’s facial expression remained blank.

Then the teacher produced a portable 45 rpm record player from her accessory bag and plugged it in. She placed a record on the turntable, turned it on, and placed the needle in the rotating groove. The song that played was “I’m a little teapot/short and stout./Here is my handle/here is my spout.” Clearly, the teacher had played this song many times before, because the girl’s face lit up in a smile and she made happy noises. And in that instant, I knew that I was in the presence of God.

I was, and remain, an agnostic. But I have no other words for what I felt – what I knew – at that moment. I can’t identify any changes in my philosophy or in my life that resulted from my epiphany (in the older sense of the word), but I’ll never forget the lesson I learned from that child. The best I can put it in words is, “if there’s a God, it’s EVERYTHING.” This is identical to the Hindu concept of Brahman: there is nothing that is not God.

When people ask me if I believe in God, and I have the time, I respond, “Define God.” To me, whether there “is” or “is not” a God is a matter of definition. If there is a God, I don’t believe It has a gender or a preferred name, but is beyond comprehension. If I were any kind of theist, I’d be a pantheist. Pantheists are always in a holy place.

More about mystical experiences in my next post.

 

The Peace Corps experience

Have you ever considered serving in the Peace Corps? Even before we got married in 1990, both Maria and I had, and we’d both lived abroad (Maria in Korea and me in Austria and Germany). Within weeks after our wedding we applied to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs). At that time only one-in-three applicants was selected to serve. Would-be PCVs don’t typically choose where they’ll serve, although fluency in the language spoken is a given host country can be a determining factor. The more open you are to serving wherever your skill set is needed, the better your chances of selection. We were approved for service after a lengthy application process, and were selected by Jamaica. We had two weeks to decide if we’d accept Jamaica’s invitation, but it didn’t take us an hour after reading about our assignment to call Peace Corps headquarters in D.C. and accept. We put all of our belongings in storage, and sold our cars around the time we got our plane tickets in the mail.

The Peace Corps is an independent government agency, not a branch of the State Department. It currently has volunteers in over sixty developing countries around the world. PCVs aren’t sent to these countries to advance or influence American foreign policy, but rather to share their skills with host country nationals, in the service of sustainable development. Each volunteer serves within one of six sectors: education, health, agriculture, community economic development, youth in development, or environment. The host country, not the Peace Corps, decides how many volunteers in each sector they need, and where they will serve. Most PCVs serve for two years, after training.

In order to qualify for Peace Corps service, you have to be at least eighteen and in good general health. Most volunteers have at least a bachelor’s degree, but exceptions are made for people with experience in certain areas, including construction, business and forestry. To be accepted, you have to pass a physical (which the Peace Corps pays for) and establish that you’re not fleeing indebtedness or legal charges. People who’ve served in intelligence agencies like the CIA need not apply. You have to have a skill set (and in some cases, appropriate certification or licensure) that people in host countries need to support development projects. The largest sectors are education and health.

Some personal qualities that make for a good PCV are good people skills, self-confidence, autonomy, flexibility, and persistence in the face of obstacles. Peace Corps service is always an adventure, and sometimes an uphill struggle. As I wrote in my book, Two Years in Kingston Town: A Peace Corps Memoir, Peace Corps service can be likened to climbing a mountain; you wind up knowing more about yourself than about the mountain.

In most host countries, accepted applicants have to have three months of in-country training, including language lessons, before they’re sworn-in as PCVs and start their assignments. But since English is Jamaica’s official language, Maria and I only had six weeks of in-country training before we were sworn in (the same oath as when I joined the Army) and started working. Two things stand out from our training as development workers in Jamaica. The Peace Corps Country Director said something to the effect of, “If you think of Peace Corps service as ‘giving up’ two years of your life, Jamaica doesn’t need you that badly. You’re here to live in Jamaica for two years, and to learn as well as to teach.” A Swedish guest lecturer with years of experience in international development work said something like this: “For at least the first six months, keep your mouth shut, and your ears and mind open. Nobody needs to hear you telling them the right way to do things. You need to establish trust and credibility before you start offering advice.”

Maria taught psychiatric nursing, but had to get licensed as a Jamaican nurse before she could join the faculty at the School of Nursing. When we applied, having no idea where we’d serve, I thought I’d end up teaching English somewhere, as I have a B.A. in English. I never dreamed that I’d serve as a psychologist. But the University Hospital of the West Indies had just opened a detox/rehab ward for Jamaican addicts, and my skill set was just what they needed. So I served as the ward psychologist, and helped to develop a relapse prevention model for the ward.

As a PCV you don’t get paid a salary, but you get a living allowance that allows you to get by on the local economy. Every month you serve, a modest amount of money ($200 when we served) is set aside for your readjustment allowance, after you complete your service. Not all PCVs fulfill their two-year obligation. Some volunteers leave behind a lasting accomplishment,  however small, in terms of sustainable development in their sector; others don’t. But I still think that the Peace Corps gives more “bang for the buck” in terms of winning friends for the U.S. in developing countries than aid agencies like U.S.A.I.D., because Peace Corps service is all about developing helping relationships within host country agencies and Non-government Organizations (NGOs).

PCVs are citizen “goodwill ambassadors,” because they work at ground level with host country counterparts. After I was robbed on a bus in downtown Kingston, I heard a fellow commuter sympathetically refer to me as “jost a workin’ mahn” because – although white – I rode the bus to work, just like them. It was one of the best compliments I received while working in Jamaica.

Maria and I didn’t serve simply out of altruism or idealism. Peace Corps service was an opportunity for cultural enrichment and personal growth. We got to know the beautiful island of Jamaica, it’s people and culture. Not all PCVs leave behind an identifiable accomplishment in terms of sustainable development in their host countries; but Maria helped Jamaican nursing students to view mentally ill people as human beings first, and not as “mental patients.” I recently learned that the relapse prevention model I introduced on the detox/rehab ward is still being used at the University Hospital of the West Indies. Maria and I still echo what’s been called the “Peace Corps mantra”: we got more than we gave.