One of the funny things about life after college that they don’t tell you in colorful brochures or limited-enrollment seminars is that your entire focus shifts from self-betterment to the betterment of other things. These are things that we honestly don’t care about much, because let’s admit it: the 22-year-old iterations of ourselves are all fundamentally self-centered creatures who dress up like hipsters must be forgiven for being unable to go ten seconds without perceiving the world as a Hollywood movie in which we ourselves are the cute, ditzy, vivacious protagonist who by the end of 90 minutes gets the guy and the job promotion for which she is fantastically unqualified.
But bills need to be paid, and even the most self-absorbed of us eventually come to realize that what pays the bills is managing other men’s affairs, working around other men’s clocks, fulfilling other men’s dreams. If we don’t reach this understanding on our own, then our parents and our student loans and our Facebook friends’ status updates are only too happy to elucidate us. And as we experience more of life so we learn, and as we grow older so we dutifully fall into line.
Sometimes though, sooner or later, the questions begin to trickle in. Is this all there is? Am I happy, or am I settling? Is it normal to feel disillusioned after only six months? Am I holding onto something that would be better to let go, simply because I’ve worked so hard and invested so much time to get to this point and it’s all I know? And am I so distracted now, am I so absorbed by the complexity and challenges of my daily life, that I can no longer see the forest for the trees? Have I ceded control of so much self-awareness that I can no longer identify what really matters to me?
Confronted for the first time with the beast of uncertainty snapping at the heels of stark reality, the only way to find answers is to seek out new perspectives. Getting a new job is one way to do this. Relocating to a new place is another. Changing your lifestyle just might do the trick. And if you want to try all three at the same time, you could do something crazy like joining the Peace Corps.
All of the cliches are true. The highs are incredibly high — soul-affirmingly high. I’ve felt ridiculously, euphorically happy with my life more times in the past year than I did in the previous 25 years combined. The lows are an existential well that has no bottom. And making it even deeper is the knowledge that nobody’s dug this well for you but yourself. Helping people is cathartic, but from the short stoop of a two-year service it’s pretty much impossible to see far enough to tell if you’re actually making a difference thirty feet down the road.
Life is a bit lot less comfortable than it was back in the suburbs. You’re going to be a local celebrity, and you’re not going to enjoy it as much as you thought you would. In fact, you’re probably going to hate it sometimes. You’ll probably get some annoying disease you’ve never heard of before. Your fellow volunteers will end up being some of the best friends you’ll ever have, although most could use a haircut and a couple don’t bathe as often as they should. You still might find yourself inexplicably attracted to a few of them. And you just might end up marrying one.
So if you get to the point where you don’t think you can continue on in the same life track you’re in right now without losing your mind or selling a bit of your soul, consider doing something drastic like uprooting your life and moving somewhere radically different. The place doesn’t matter so much — although travel agencies and beer distributors would have you believe otherwise, sunsets look about the same everywhere.
But surrounding yourself with thousands of people who come from a completely different background and who value completely different things than you do is an exhilarating and profoundly educational experience. If you want all the time in the world to try to make even the tiniest positive difference in yourself and your community, without the excuse of a full-time job to justify not having the time or motivation to take these steps along the path of self-discovery, then this is where you may want to be.
It took moving to Zambia amidst a cloud of uncertainty for me to find the clarity of inner peace. To discern what I value instead of what others have convinced me I should value. To surround myself with influences that inspire me and help me to constantly learn more instead of with weak affirmations of the path of least resistance. To discover that in the process I have somehow managed to become a more curious and humble and appreciative person.
And the coolest thing is that instead of merely reading about my cultural faux pas and my existential crises and my wacky fish-out-of-water tales on this blog, you can do it too.
Turn that perspective on its head! Go find that inner peace! Drink from the Kool-Aid and forget about the sugar and empty calories for just a moment. (For 27 months, to be precise.) You’ll work them off when you’re running around scrambling to find a job again afterwards. A new life is out there waiting for you in the place where your comfort zone ends and your uncertainty begins. All you have to do is reach out and grab it.