Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JAN 28, 2013
Back in the States after the Peace Corps, I feel lost, like it’s unreal
After graduating from college, I joined the Peace Corps. This whole growing up thing has been great, by the way! There are more interesting things to learn about and more important things to care about every day. And the older I get, the more I can do.
I was very close to my host family in my country of service. For two years, I lived in a hut in their compound. They were work partners, friends and parents to me. They introduced me to their culture, taught me the local language and showed me more about the meaning of family and community than I could ever hope to communicate with my words or works. As proud as I am of the work that I did there, my relationship with that family and the whole village community is what I’ll carry in my heart for the rest of my life.
The work was good, too. When it went well, anyway. Our projects were complicated sometimes, and they were always being carried out in low-resource settings. It could be frustrating. But seeing a village pull together, as I got to over and over again, was a delight. I could go to bed at night, dehydrated and exhausted, truly emptied out, and feel so much joy. I intend to chase that feeling for the rest of my life, and I will follow it anywhere.
This feeling is like having this whole other element in my life, like a color I had never been able to see before my Peace Corps service, or like an entirely new way of putting the same old words and thoughts together, an entirely new way of living. It came every day, but some days more than others. The best days were the days that were full of work and people. The best nights were the nights when I went to bed sunburned and sore, with a light heart, a full stomach, and the knowledge that I had done a good thing well. I remember thinking: This is all I want. Let me not live a day past my ability to feel this way. Not an hour.
After my return to the States, which was about six months ago, I started a program of education that will bring me to a career I am certain I will love. It’s a career path that will bring me back to that feeling I’m talking about. It’s thrilling, and I feel lucky to be in this program. I am exactly where I need to be, having taken every opportunity for adventure and madness and good work that has come my way. At least, I’m 95 percent sure of all that, and that remaining whisper of doubt doesn’t come anywhere close to disturbing me.
Here’s the thing. I haven’t felt anything since I’ve come back to the States. A friend’s sadness has moved me deeply on a couple of occasions, and I was moved to the point of mild irritation by the need to take midterms and final exams this semester. But I haven’t emotionally connected to anything or anyone in a way that felt real to me. Things happen, and they’re sometimes things that I should feel keenly. But I don’t. I even took a volunteer job that I thought would push me emotionally. Nothing.
I don’t feel like I’m disconnecting myself from the people and things around me on purpose, but I don’t know how to stop it from happening. Nothing here seems real. It’s what I feel when I look at old sepia-tinted photos: that it’s a real world, or it was, but it’s not mine. I can’t put my hands on it, I can’t live in it, I can’t respond to it.
I know some people have trouble coming back from overseas. They fall apart in grocery stores, shocked by the variety of foods and consumer goods. They lose it in restaurants and bars, appalled by others’ inability to understand their experiences, or angered by their ignorance of faraway places. I’ve seen all that happen, and it’s not what’s happening to me. At least, I think it’s not.
How do you reconnect? How do you wake back up? How do you come home?
Not All Here
Dear Not All Here,
Your question is so interesting that I am going to take a speculative approach to it, almost as though it were a writing prompt. For it reads like a novel that opens after many important things have already happened. We begin with exhaustion. The hero returns and now what? In storytelling sense, it might not seem like the best place to start. But we’re at a point of decision-making, which should lead to a story. The protagonist is having flashbacks to his time overseas. He is concerned mostly about that world that he has left. That is what he is thinking about, day to day. We wouldn’t want to hang around with him if he’s just going to be unhappy and live in the past. But we’ll put up with it for a little bit because we like him and trust him. He’s done something good and he’s troubled but it’s not because there’s something wrong with him. It’s more like a new problem for him to solve.
He buys a peach at a corner store and the man who sells it to him reminds him of one of the villagers and it sets off a train of thought where we see that he loved these people and longs for return. We grow to like this character as he goes about his daily life and tells us about the life he left in the village.
Since we have grown to like the character, we want something to happen to him or for him. If he is simply exhausted then there is no story. To make a story, first we think the character must insert himself into bland American culture and try to change it. He must hurl himself up against it. That will make it an interesting novel. He must identify the elements in American society that are lacking and he must identify the disease. Is it ennui? Is this a dying empire? Is that what happened? The son of a dying empire experiences a vital culture and then returns to his dying empire and realizes the truth?
He must watch television and listen to the current political debate and contrast it with his recent experience in the village. For instance maybe he is sitting in a cafe working on his thesis and there is an argument on the television about “the debt.” He starts to think about “the debt,” how it is an abstract cudgel everyone is beaten by, how it looms like the threat of the paddle used to loom in schools before paddles were outlawed.
He tries to analyze what is wrong with the society he has returned to, and he sees that it is full of fear, irrational fear, superstitious fear, religious fear. He sees that the promise of rational progress, the Enlightenment dream of the free individual, the lessons of existentialism and psychoanalysis, the promise of technology, the daily miracles occurring in software, that all these things are occurring and yet the populace seems weirdly drugged. He begins to wonder if Americans might not have been hypnotized in his absence. Or is he the one who has changed? Was it always this way? No one can tell him. He asks a professor he has come to like and trust and the professor tells him that yes, American society is diseased and drugged, and we must each find our personal salvation wherever we can — in heroin, in Buddhism, in study. His professor’s answer seems both sincere and deeply cynical and he cannot reconcile these conflicting impressions, and feels that the professor has not been entirely honest with him, but then he realizes it’s not the professor’s job to be honest with him, but to provoke him to thought.
He is angry. He asks what he is angry about. The answer that comes is that he is angry about loss. What he senses in the society to which he has returned is that it has lost a precious beauty, a burning faith. Part of this he chalks up to his youth. Of course the world is mostly tedium. Of course most people give up. As he works for a living he realizes why most people give up: Because to eat and pay rent one must get up every day and work at a job that takes all one’s energy, a job that requires one to focus on details that do not relate to any larger human project but seem to exist in a machine world all their own, and one wonders why so many millions of workers are spending their days hunched over in cubicles managing the details of this machine that is too huge to see or comprehend, a machine that does not speak to us or reveal itself but which nonetheless must be maintained. And then out of boredom he goes to the movies alone. He has heard of this movie “Zero Dark Thirty” and so he buys a ticket at a theater out in a quiet, foggy distract of the city (I wrote “distract” instead of “district” because just at that moment I was distracted; weird, huh? Such ticks might make this seem like a self-referential novel but that would not be good because a self-referential novel might be considered just one more symptom of a dying empire). He sits through “Zero Dark Thirty” and grows angry and sad. The movie strikes him as the bland recitation of an undigested trauma. This trauma, he realizes, this national trauma has not been transformed into wisdom but sits inert in the belly of the beast, and he realizes that the nature of a truly bad thing is that we cannot overcome it or comprehend it, that it makes us crazy or sterile or frozen, and this is how bad, boring art gets made as well — he has the thought that bad art is made by stuck analysands groping in blandness.
He walks out of the theater and for a moment he hates his country. He stops on a dark street corner and begins to weep for this country that only months before had seemed so bright with promise. He thinks about the men in the movie who got on the helicopters to go and murder America’s enemy and there is much about them that he likes but their mission had about it the bloodlessness of an execution. He seizes on that word “bloodless” and feels there is something bloodless in the land he has returned to.
But he goes on. He goes home. He breaks a vase in his apartment. He calls a woman he has been seeing and asks her if she would like to go to Turkey. He feels if he goes to Turkey he can wash out this anger and sense of betrayal. Why Turkey? she says. I haven’t been there yet, he says. I want to sit in a cafe and look at spires. She says that asking her to go to Turkey is impulsive and unreasonable. She’s got finals and he knows she’s got finals. It’s after 1 in the morning, why doesn’t he get some sleep. He needs to adjust, she says. He’s back in the States now and it’s time to adjust.
She hangs up. He sits in his chair looking out the window at the full moon. He’s not sure he wants to adjust. He fears that adjusting means sacrificing something sacred. It was a lot of work to find and cultivate that thing that is sacred. You don’t find that every day.
So he buys a ticket. He goes to Turkey to sit in a cafe and look at spires. He gets a little motorbike and starts riding out this road into the fields at sunset. He spends time wandering around the mosques. People tell him he’s missing his chance. He says the degree will have to wait. He’s got things to sort out.
Then something happens, or a series of things happen, and it’s 30 years later and he asks himself if he is happy, if he has done the right things, and realizes that his life has been rich because he heeded the calls when they came, and he resisted easy belief. He sacrificed some things. He parted tragically with his home. He left many things behind but he heeded the call.
That’s how your letter makes me feel. No matter how bland and disappointing our country is, there is always a shining call to answer. There may be another call for you to answer now. That may be why the country you have returned to seems unreal. Listen for the call. Listen for your next assignment. Trust the surprise.