Monday, May 12, 2008

Playing the expectations game

Playing with hoops and sticks; using a sheep's bladder as a soccer ball; being a concubine to an Armenian prince. These are a few of the more ridiculous expectations that friends and I have come up with in jest. But even after joking about it, the question remains: what am I to expect?

In some ways this isn't a question that pertains simply to the matter of my Peace Corps service--it isn't even a question that pertains solely to my individual experiences and work. What can I, and what can we all, expect from the kind of work that is being done by Peace Corps volunteers, by well-meaning NGOs, by governmental aid organizations across the board?

So often, it seems, the improvements that occur in the lives of those in the developing world are marginal. A villager builds a fish pond to diversify his food supply; a child makes it one more grade into school than she otherwise would have; an acre of forest is stopped from being burned. The simple answer I often hear is that all these little things "add up." It's always seemed like little more than a platitude to me, however, because it doesn't address what happens when these things don't add up; it doesn't address what happens when it really is only that one villager or that one acre.

But expectations of anything else are often little more than grandiose gestures by those of us hoping to convince ourselves that our small contributions are greater than they are. I've been complicit in this myself. I often tell myself that my life goal is to create positive change in whatever way I can, while simultaneously expecting that "whatever way I can" means something very large, affecting millions. Perhaps that will someday come true, but in the meantime, a different understanding of expectations is necessary. Because those marginal improvements are still exactly that: improvements. They're positive changes that help a select few improve their lives, even just a tiny bit.

The reality for the vast majority is that improvements in life are only ever small--they're often not life changing. But they are still a good that can be felt, regardless of whether they add up to something bigger and greater.

Which brings me back to my expectations. I have few, except that I expect to create positive change for someone, somewhere. I'm not going into the Peace Corps so that I can be a part of something, the efforts of which add up to a huge difference. Leaving aside the personal benefit that I will receive in my career and my life from this--and I would be remiss if I tried to convince anyone that I don't expect to benefit from this--I'm going into the Peace Corps to help someone, because there is a good to be created by positively impacting even one person's life, and even in a marginal way. This is my expectation: smallness, not grandiosity.